A Freudian Approach

The Pre-religious Need To Believe


     I side in fact with those who think that in the great crises the West has gone through – and  notably at the moment of the Renaissance as well as the 18th century and, in another way, today – men and women were able to clarify and recompose this need to believe from different perspectives and in a completely different way from religions.  Didn’t mystics from the outset risk this experience in a sort of internal exclusion from the “canon”?  Let us go back to the humanists of the Renaissance who, since Petrarch, Boccaccio, Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, and not forgetting  Erasmus, Montaigne, Thomas More and even Nicolas de Cues to name a few, no more abolished the need to believe than they confused this need with organized religion.  The French Enlightenment and the Encyclopedists, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot and even the scandalous Marquis de Sade deepened and radicalized this channel by moving from deism to atheism.

     Emerging from the dissolution of onto-theology, the humanities in turn didn’t hesitate to take up variants of the religious and the sacred.  As early as the end of the 19th century, Emile Durkheil explored the elementary forms of religious life, while Marcel Mauss analyzed prayer, giving and sacrifice; closer to us, the work of Lévi-Strauss questioned myths, while Mary Douglas investigated the concepts of pollution and taboo. 

    At the horizon of these thoughts, it is the Freudian discovery of the unconscious and the foundation of psychoanalysis that guide my reflection.  To believe – and I am not referring to the  “I believe” that implies an “I suppose” as in remarks such as :”judging from his e-mails, I believe he doesn’t love me;  but when I hear his voice I believe he does.”   This “to believe” that interests us today is that of Montaigne for example, when he writes, “For Christians, recounting something incredible is an occasion for belief”(Essais); or the “to believe” of Pascal: “The mind naturally believes and the will naturally loves; so that if lacking true objects, they must attach themselves to false ones.” (Pensées II); or even that of Voltaire: “The reason I have for believing in something is not proof of the existence of the thing. (Twenty-fifth letter on the thoughts of M. Pascal).  Whether I adhere to a religion or am agnostic or atheist, I say “I believe” to make it heard that “I hold for true.”


     But what truth am I referring to?  Certainly not a calculating truth that can be logically and scientifically proven.  What I’m describing is a truth that lands on me “from out of the blue” and to which I can only adhere; it is a truth that subjugates me totally, fatally and which I hold for vital, absolute, indisputable: credo quia absurdum.  It is a truth that holds me, that makes me be. Rather than an idea, a thing, or a situation perhaps this is more clearly an experience?
     If this need to “hold for true” is not satisfied, my learning, convictions, loves, acts simply do not hold up.  But from where exactly do we get this need to “hold for true”, this “need to believe”? Is it inevitably religious?
    Credo – from the Sanskrit Kredh-dh/srad-dha- means “to give one’s heart, one’s vital energy in return for a recompense” and designates an “act of trust implying restitution,” the act of “entrusting something with the certitude of getting it back (give credit).  Emile Benveniste in his Vocabulary of Indo-European Institutions, insisted on the corollary between believe and credit; the Vedic man deposits his desire, his magical strength (more than his heart) with the gods; he puts his trust in them and counts on a return: Indra is the god of help, Strad-dha is the goddess of the offering.  Saint Augustine was among the first to invite us “to read the Holy Scripture with the eyes of the heart fixed on our heart” (De Doctrina Christiana IV, V, 7).  Paradoxically and necessarily, it was an atheist Jew, Sigmund Freud who, by probing the depths of the unconscious made the “need to believe” an object of knowledge.  A superficial reading of  The Future of an Illusion (1927) may lead one to think that Freud reduced belief to an illusion, one which humans have a difficult time shucking, set as they are on lulling themselves with gratifying fantasies rather than turning to reason.  This movement of thought, present in Freud, the abrupt schema of which contemporary psychoanalysis continues to surpass, accompanies the very work of Freud by multiple advances that we have not finished exploring: from Totem and Taboo, the exchanges with Jung, Romain Roland and the Pastor Pfister, up to the Civilization and its Discontents  (1930) and Moses and Monotheism (1939).
    Moreover, the analytical experience itself is no stranger to “belief” in the large sense of the term: does not the transference/counter-transference establish at the very core of the analytic treatment the conviction at once emotional and logical that the interpretation is well-founded?  Add to this the fact that the analyst begins by “believing” in the psychic reality of her analysands: it doesn’t matter that my analysand entrusts me with his inept fantasies. I begin by believing in his beliefs, in these apparent absurdities before we are able to dissolve them infinitely or at least clarify them indefinitely.   In this edge-to-edge contact with belief, I go a step further: I integrate the narratives, myths and theories of  my analysands in my interpretation which, from the subjective makes a clean transfer into the objective; and by validating these narratives as constitutive states of the psychic life, I restore them to the field of knowledge and therapy.
    This proximity psychoanalysis shares with belief  has come strongly under attack; I would say that even today, in our era of “hard core sex” and its flip side, Puritanism, the resistance to psychoanalysis stems less from the fear of the “sexual” – which has become a quotidian spectacle – than from this Freudian incursion into the field of belief.  Psychoanalysts have not failed to notice the resemblance and differences between psychoanalysis and faith and the different aspects of the “return to the religious” whether expressed  as the need to believe, in the guise of sects or the clash of religions…

     To briefly summarize the originality of the analytical position one hundred and fifty years after the birth of Freud (1856-1939), allow me to limit myself to several propositions which were clinically and theoretically developed by his successors, Melanie Klein, Lacan and Winnicott.   Freud gave himself the liberty of treating the God of the philosophers with irony: for him it was only “apple juice”.  In his letter to Marie Bonaparte in 1928, he remarked that this “divine” apple juice “contained a infinitesimal amount of alcohol – if it is even alcohol at all, but people get drunk on it all the same.”  Here is yet another reason for recognizing the psychic reality of the religious experience, which Freud perceived as an “archaic regression”  possible “to approach by means of mythology and the development of language,” as he remarked in his letter to Jung ( February 2, 1910).  Although he recognized the fragility of his “young science” Freud was persuaded that it would be an illusion to “receive from somewhere else” that which this science cannot give and maintained his position under the banner of the “God of Logos” in his prospecting of sacred exhilaration.  “Our God of Logos is perhaps not all-powerful, perhaps he can only accomplish a portion of what his predecessors promised.” (The Future of an Illusion, 1927)

The Oceanic Feeling of Connectedness

    Two psychic experiences, which correspond to constitutive stages of our “animic apparatus” or “psychic apparatus” bring the clinician face to face with the need to believe.  Allow me to summarize their schema.
    The first brings us back to what Freud, responding to Romain Rolland, described not without reticence as the oceanic feeling of connectedness.   Freud admittedly felt “ill at ease discussing such imponderable subjects” (Civilization and its Discontents)  This  oceanic feeling concerns the intimate union of the Ego and the surrounding world, experienced as an absolute certitude of satisfaction and security, but also as loss of self in favor of that which surrounds us and contains us, in favor of a container or envelop and which harks back to the newborn who has not yet established the boundaries between his Ego and the mother’s body.  Indisputable and impossible to share, given only to “a few” whose “regression goes sufficiently far,” and yet authenticated by Freud as an original experience of the Ego, this pre-linguistic or trans-linguistic experience dominated by sensations, shores up belief.  Belief, not in the sense of “supposing” but in the powerful sense of an unshakable certitude, a sensorial plenitude, and ultimate truth that the subject experiences as an exorbitant sur-viv-al, indistinctly sensorial and mental, in short ek-static.  Certain poetic works attest to this and perhaps most obviously the writings of Proust.  His narrator cites dreams without images (“the dream of the second apartment”), woven with pleasures or pains “one believes” (he specifies) innumerable, which enliven the five senses to the extreme and that only a cascade of metaphors can attempt to “translate”: the narrative of these dreams lends itself to be interpreted as a triumph over endogenous autism which inhabits the unconscious depths of each of us according to the psychoanalyst Frances Tustin. Might the writer be she who succeeds where the autistic person fails?  This is to say precisely she who is able to name this limitless immersion of the Ego in the world, which, by virtue of being named ceases to be a catastrophic abolition of the self, but is experienced as an “oceanic feeling”, as an jubilant osmosis of the subject in the communal flesh of a “not-yet self” engulfed in a “not-yet world.”  The autistic person is not able to differentiate between his flesh and the flesh of the world because he is unable to represent them.  On the other hand, using language to capture the Ego’s belonging to this envelop provokes a feeling of all-powerfulness and truth, a source of certitude and elation.  “Something like bliss” a friend who combines artistic inspiration with mystic exaltation once told me.  The need to believe – with its power of  brilliant certitude, sensorial joy and dispossession of self – would commemorate this archaic experience, along with its pleasures and risks.
     Far from exhausting the complexity of the need to believe, this Freudian plunge into the certitude of the Ego-world, of the ego merging with the flesh of the world, is accompanied by the no less fugacious and suggestive light  of another component proper to the need to believe: “I” only am if I am recognized by a beloved authority.  In my book  Love Stories, I argued that psychoanalysis is based on the amorous experience repeated, decomposed and recomposed in the experience of tranference/counter-transference.  In the large spectrum of amorous bonds, Freud insists on the desire” (Sehnsucht) for the father (Totem and Taboo, 1912): the “murder of the father by the primal horde”, far from extinguishing this desire, manages to stimulate and kindle it leading to the creation of an absolute ideal which according to Freud shores up religious feeling.  Moreover, as if to specify the need to believe as the central core of a more vast religious feeling, Freud advances in The Ego and the Id (I923) the idea of a “primal identification” with the “Father of individual prehistory.”  “Direct and immediate” (direkte und unmittelbare) this identification anterior to all objectal relations of desire, is not directed at the Oedipal father but at a loving father who would have “the attributes of both parents.”  The Oedipal father, object of a love-hate projection, will only intervene later to prompt revolt and murder as a condition for becoming an autonomous and thinking subject.
    In the period of nascent individuation, the loving father  appears as a life preserver to buoy  one up amidst the “oceanic feeling”:    By the imaginary surface of his loving authority, he pulls me out of the engulfing container: he is the guarantor of my being.  This unusual celebration of the loving Father under the pen of the inventor of the Oedipus complex is described as a “direct and immediate”  dazzling emotional identification, because the young child does not have to elaborate it: it is transmitted to him by the love of  his mother for his father and for her own father as well.  From here on, a third-party infiltrates the archeology of the need to believe: what we have here is a selfless  paternal figure invested with a sublimatory capacity who, by recognizing the symbolic being of the newborn through his love, grants him the dignity of being.  By recognizing me, the loving authority of the father enables me to be.  Without this fundamental shoring up, I would not be able to acquire any norm, accept any frustration, obey any prohibition, accept any law or moral code.  This primal identification lies at the foundation of authority, for constituted by the loving recognition of this third-party, it breaks away from the terror and tyranny which threaten the helpless newborn.  Moreover, it initiates culture.
     On the one hand there is the oceanic Gehful which extrapolates dependency on the maternal into a representation of the envelop and its content, and confers on the Ego the jubilant certitude of belonging to the world, the all-powerful “being of it.”   On the other hand there is the primal identification with the father of individual pre-history whose loving authority quiets primal anxiety and provides me with the conviction that “I am”.   The “I” does not cease to seek out the primary constituents of its identity in its incredible need to believe.

Psychoanalysis and mysticism: Resemblance/difference

   Up until the end of his life, Freud examined psychoanalysis and mysticism side by side though with the intention to oppose them of course!  Psychoanalysis aims at “the perception by the Ego of the Id” (New IntroductoryConferences on Psychoanalysis), in echo to the claim “There where it was, I must become”; whereas mysticism is “the obscure self-perception of the kingdom, beyond the Ego and the Id” (specifies the last Freudian maxim of 1938).  The path of mystic belief plunges the Ego into the Id by way of a sensual auto-eroticism which confers an all-powerful status onto the Id: revelation and absence, pleasure and nothingness.  The analytical treatment addresses the same pleasurable encounter between the Ego and the Id, but it allows these two instances to circulate, through the words spoken in the transference process, from the Id to the Ego and from the Ego to the Id.  Is there any resemblance ?  Incontestably there is.  Yet let’s make no confusion between the two!  Easier said than done…
    I callthis  pre-religious “need to believe”  incredible  because there is no question of making it an absolute, by flattering it and using it to establish such and such an order or hierarchy.  Nor is there any question of ignoring it which would risk mutilating the individual’s capacity to think and create, as well as risk stifling the social bond with constraints rather than enabling it to become a support, an optimal condition for democratic debate.  Is it not surprising that our secularized societies have neglected this incredible need to believe?  That they have denied the necessary paradox which consists in responding to this anthropological belief without submitting it to the historical forms that the history of beliefs confers on it?  In doing so they have failed to see that, as Freud pointed out, the need to believe can be sublimated  in diversified practices and forms of elucidation.
     By thus scrutinizing the foundations of individuation, analytical listening does not claim to flatten the complexity of religious experiences.  It contents itself with opening perspectives of observation and theorization which, by allowing a more complex comprehension of the psychic apparatus, reveals the extent to which the need to believe constitutes the speaking subject “before” all religious construction properly speaking, and of course, within secularization itself.  This barely sketched out “work site” calls us to continue building.  For I am persuaded that by taking this pre-religious need to believe seriously, we will be better able to confront not only the drifts of religious fundamentalism of the past and today, but also the deadlocks of our secularized societies.  Most notably I’m thinking of the incapacity of our secular society to institute authority, thus paving the way for both violence and the automation of the species.  How can we claim to impose an authority in which no-one believes if we have cancelled out the problematic of belief itself and if, as a consequence, we no longer encourage its “sublimations” as Freud wished?   We look to the logic of the courts to bring a just solution to conflicts,  including religious ones, forgetting that jurisprudence owes its authority to a general consensus on essential moral principles.  Yet it is precisely this very consensus which our multi-cultural and recomposed societies lack, devoid of moral foundations because incapable of federating heterogeneous beliefs on the so-called “abstract” “ rights of man” alone.  When we attempt to create this consensus by fits and starts in the “political debate”, we quickly notice that the “democracy of opinion” exposes itself to the freedom of judgement of each of us: of each “quid,” of “who you are” writes Hannah Arendt, differentiating it from the “quod” of “that which you are.”  The living political bond, understood and practiced as a means to share creativity, calls out to the singularity of each of us.  We are thus brought back to subjective autonomy, that is to say, to the pre-conditions of liberty and/or individuation which the need to believe makes us experience with urgent intensity.  The least we can say is that secularized societies don’t really take this into account.


(Translated by Anne Marsella)