Psychology Is My Religion
Psychology may be the least illusory defense against our fear of death.
Posted Aug 19, 2018
Nietzsche famously scribed, “God is dead”, in the late 1800’s to discuss the impact of the Age of Enlightenment on human values. He wasn’t literally saying God died, as he never believed in God. Instead he was suggesting the human race’s belief they are special in God’s eyes was dying as a result of scientific discoveries. He purported that society hadn’t realized this effect yet and held onto the morals that had long been supported by religions, but eventually they would. Some later existentialists suggest that along with the loss of guiding morals, came a loss of meaning. With humans no longer being special came the pervasive fear of death, and the need for defenses against it. There are a number of ways that humans have maintained existential denial. Two of these include the magical other and psychology. I hope to argue the latter is more sufficient, and less an illusion.
Some psychologists believe faith has been put in a magical other, who we hope rescues us from our voids and heals our wounds (Hollis, 1998). This seems evident in our culture, where many believe the ultimate goal in life is to partner (for more on this, see my post Transcending Romantic Love). However, this results in deficient love, and before long most find the void has not been filled. They then resort to other behaviors: shopping, infidelity, drugs and alcohol, or perhaps they simply fall into a victim role cursing the bad luck they have had in life.
The existentialists posit that religion and partnering are two ways to deny the fear we have of death. Briefly, religion provides life after death, and finding a partner allows one to project his/her need for a savior onto another, all the while quelling fear. In, “The Denial of Death”, Ernest Becker puts forth his theory that the denial of death is pervasive, and, in some, it leads to mental health issues.
Becker suggests that depression, as well as other mental health issues, are consequences of not having a meaningful enough immortality project. He references Eric Fromm, a prominent psychoanalyst, who “once lamented that it is a wonder that more people are not insane, since life is such a terrible burden” (p.273). As I wrote in, “Existence is Suffering”, recognizing existential issues rather than denying them is indeed painful. The existential issues that abound are overwhelming: meaninglessness, death, isolation, and taking responsibility for one’s life are daunting when contemplated. In his book he suggests ways in which we as a species continue to deny the reality of death.
Before the Age of Enlightenment, religion gave humans meaning and a special place in the world. But once science began to dominate and religion began to fail, religion and the special place humans held in God’s eyes were no longer sufficient for a meaningful life. Becker suggests that with religion’s decreased power in society many have turned to psychology as their immortality project. Psychology offers them the hope to transcend character. He points out several ways it can work. However, like religion or the magical other, it is an illusion used for defense.
However, Becker wrote all of this before some modern psychological theories. He focused primarily on psychoanalysis. Though I agree many of his arguments still apply, I believe there is a way to use psychology to overcome the illusions, and actually confront the issues Becker believes we spend our lives trying to avoid.
To begin, Existentialists believe you have to be aware of your fear of death. Additionally, one needs to work to overcome his or her conditioning, and to some extent, his or her biological influences on personality. (For example, part of personality is temperament. Though this lends one to perceive in certain ways, understanding of this can widen the window of behavioral options). Therefore, understanding the fear of death and its outcome, the immortality project, lends one to be less controlled by it. Some modern theories focus on acceptance of our internal states, rather than avoidance or denial of them. This leads to less defensive maneuvers. As the immortality project is a defensive measure, perhaps having more acceptance of one’s humanity and existential issues would result in less need for this defense.
Becker argues there are three ways that psychology can be a worthy substitute for the fall of religion (p.272-273). One is that it also takes on aspects similar to religion, and through the ritual and mystery of psychotherapy. Becker suggests that “lived” experiential therapy offers ritual, initiation, and “a holy excursion into a tabooed and sacred realm” (p.272). In this way, psychotherapy becomes a nearly religious experience.
Another way psychology is a worthy substitute is if religious aspects are added into the above. Some argue, (Wright, R. 2017, p.261 & 262) that Eastern beliefs qualify as religion, even when secularized. He references William James’ definition that religion is “the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto” (p.261). As such, if Eastern beliefs are combined with psychology, it would stand to reason that in this case, psychology has taken on religious aspects.
Psychology has found a lot of success fusing with Eastern beliefs about the nature of the mind. Mindfulness based therapies have been demonstrated to be of benefit to a number of mental health issues. And though the argument can be made that psychology can supplant the weakening of religion as the preferred illusion keeping those that accept it from becoming, to one degree or another, as Fromm put it, insane, it is my argument it needn’t be an illusion. Humans are all deluded to some extent, as I argue regularly (see “The Top 20 Ways You are Lying to Yourself”). But psychology can actually work to make us less deluded, especially about what Becker thought was our deepest delusion, the reality we are animals who want to be gods. It can help to accept one’s existential fate and reduce the defenses against it.
In the end, Ernest Becker wins. There is no way to prove the argument I’ve laid out here trying to show psychology is more than an illusion, isn’t just a better illusion. It could be argued in Becker’s behalf that the techniques I present do have religious aspects, as Wright suggests. Or, as Becker suggested, it is more esoteric, and experiential with mindfulness. And Becker had one more way in which psychology could be a worthy substitute for failing religion: the person could make it their immortality project, which may just be what I attempt to do here month after month.
Copyright William Berry, 2018
Becker, E., 1973, The Denial of Death, Free Press Paperbacks, New York, N.Y.
Hollis, J., 1998, The Eden Project: In Search of the Magical Other, Inner City Books, Toronto, ON.
Wright, R., 2017, Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment, Simon and Schuster, New York, N.Y.