Fundamentalists: Notes on Personality Analysis and Religiosity as Neurosis

by Monroe Stein, Ph.D.

Sigmund Freud, in his Future of an Illusion, regarded religion as "the universal neurosis".  He thereby implied that, if the neurotic substrate of religious beliefs in supernaturalism and the ritual practice accompanying them would ameliorated, the individual's need for religion could be expected to reduce correspondingly, or even eliminated.  An avowed atheist, Freud devoted much attention through his writings, such as "Moses and Monotheism" to the psychological and socio-historical sources of religion.  Although an atheist, he retained — as an integral part of his ego-identity throughout his life — a tie with secular-cultural-humanistic dimensions of Jewish ethnicity.

The Viennese psychiatrist, Victor E. Frankl, unfortunately, but to his ultimate personal enrichment due do to his self-transcending efforts to rehabilitate himself, spent three years in the shadow of the gas chambers of the Nazi death camps of Auschwitz and Dachau.  Since then, he seems — among his other contributions — to have uncovered, although seemingly still unbeknown to himself, significant empirical support for Freud's conception of religion as a "universal neurosis."

That is to say, Frankl, as he noted in his "The Unheard Cry For Meaning," when traveling through Mexico in 1975, came upon a Benedictine monastery.  He happened to discuss with the prior who ran the monastery the issue of neurosis and freedom from it, evidently including the question of the acquisition of religiosity.  He learned that the prior had insisted that the monks in his monastery undergo a strictly Freudian psychoanalysis, and they did so.  The outcome?  Only 20 percent remained in the Monastery!  This finding is supportive of Freud's conception and mine too, that by reducing the neurotic conflicts and other 'hang-ups' underlying religiosity, one can be expected to evolve a more normal, rational life orientation.

In the bio-social development, mostly beginning in late infancy, as the individual inevitably encounters frustrations, disappointments, and delayed and unmet satisfaction of needs, both basic and higher, a capacity for frustration-tolerance, the ability to make assessments leading to problem solving, and the devising and execution of coping strategies are required for competence in living.  When encountering vicissitudes in the course of living, the individual — since actual merger with the nurturing, all-giving mother is no longer possible — tends to be drawn to substitute, as a vicarious parent figure, especially if he or she is subjected to religious indoctrination, the fiction of a supreme being.  In essence, the individual projects onto the external world a fantasized modification of his or her internalized parent figure image.

If indoctrination takes hold, the individual projects his or her infantile wishes onto the posited supreme being, who is typically replete with the protagonist's prepackaged pap of arcane supernaturalism.  The presence of the pathopsychological sources and the dynamics of a belief in a deity can be demonstrated more clearly, because the exaggerated nature of severe abnormal conditions highlights them, in the religious delusions of many schizophrenics.  Intriguingly, these delusions show matriarchal features, paralleling ancient and contemporary mother religions.

In essence, the acquiring of religiosity is both prompted by and enables the individual, otherwise seemingly mature in his or her psychological functioning, to make experiencing the world a fantasized or delusional reenactment, or both, of the dyadic infant and mother/father relationship.  In effect, Mickey Mouse-like "nursery" of comic proportions, a vestige of the naοve, prescientific thinking, superstition, and ignorance of humankind's primitive past appears.

Religiosity may afford a noteworthy degree of surcease; it is true, from anxieties, frustrations, and insecurity that dog one in the course of independent living.  It does so, however, at the cost of doing violence to the crown of humankind's evolutionary achievement — the phylogenic flowering of the supremacy of its intelligence, its unsurpassed capacity for rationality, among the animal kingdom.

I would like to attempt now a more detailed, sharply focused delineation of the neurotic substrate of religiosity.  In the very early postnatal development of the child, i.e., in infancy, there is, experientially, a sense of no boundary, a unity between himself or herself and the outer world, consisting principally, of course, of the dyad of infant and mother.  In psychoanalytic terms, ego and non-ego are one, and if, as usually occurs, the mother has a healthy, caring, nurturing merging with the child, there exists for the child an experience of completeness, an overall contentment imbuing the self and the surround.  This experience of unity between self and the world around the child affords the infant a considerable sense of security — a narcissistic union mystica — a deep oral union with the universe.

Thus, the ecstatic experience of religious conversion, of being "reborn again," that persons afflicted with religiosity so often stridently claim, can be better understood as solely a pathopsychological phenomenon: the transitory reestablishment, through regression, of the original "oceanic feeling" — as Freud and Sandor Rado, an American psychoanalyst, labeled it — that characterized the unity, the deep passive dependence, that the infant experienced with the all giving mother.

The infant's experience of unity, along with the contentment it affords, gradually disappears as the child, through maturation and learning, begins pari passu to meet with be intervals when the satisfaction of his or her needs is delayed.  The child then come to differentiate between self and non-self, ego non ego.

The child's earlier, contented phase of development leaves an important residuum of memory content that — when difficulties in adaptive functioning occur — tends to become revived, and to which the person longs, although perhaps unbeknown to himself or herself, to regress, to re-experience.  This longing, actual and potential, provides a fertile intrapsychic soil for the inculcation by organized religion of the wish fantasies of "the good Lord watching over" oneself, of "taking care" of oneself.

To present this important insight, perhaps more sharply, Margaret S. Mahler — a Viennese-bred psychoanalyst — noted in the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic association in 1971:

The entire life cycle constitutes a more or less successful process of distancing from the introjections of the lost symbiotic mother, an eternal longing for the actual or fantasized "ideal state of self," with the later standing for a symbiotic fusion with the "all good symbiotic mother," who was at one time part of the self in a blissful state of well being.


In my analysis, based on observation, two of the more outstanding features of the mental and personality functioning — or, more apropos, malfunctioning — of fundamentalists are (a) the certitude with which they appear to hold and present their beliefs in the supernatural, and (b) their inability to think in a critical, a analytic way about their religious beliefs, most notably those concerning the supernatural realm. Indeed, these two areas of pathopsychological functioning appear to afflict, to a greater or lesser extent, all persons saddled with religiosity, but they are particularly striking in fundamentalists.

The fundamentalist's certitude, by its strongly exaggerated nature, can be better understood as a psychoneurotic symptom complex, a part of a neurotic defensive formation, erected against unconscious doubt of comparable, exaggerated degree with the certitude.  Further, the substitution of certitude for as Bertrand Russell noted in a philosophical sense, ignorance is not permissible in science nor, for that matter, in any rational thinking.  It is a form of intellectual travesty of human intelligence.

The panoply of neurotic defensive formation of fundamentalism accounts in great measure for their limiting of their social contacts, as Vlaardingerbroek points out, to their own circumscribed in-groups.  They thereby avoid the arousal in themselves of feelings of insecurity which would otherwise be produced by encountering persons who hold, and would do in do course express, contrary beliefs of a religious nature, thereby endangering the fundamentalists' defenses against the powerful, underlying doubt deep within themselves.

In the same vein, the gullibility of the fundamentalist in relation for his or her religious dogma, which Vlaardingerbroek so aptly points out too, is also part of the neurotic defensive formation against the presence of unconscious doubt, a mode of bolstering the self erected "wall" within their minds against strong, deep-lying uncertainty.  By the same token, the fundamentalist's self-righteous attitude reveals, by its marked, exaggerate nature also, that it is part of the bulwark of the neurotic defense formation, in this instance against underlying hostile, self serving, greedy, and even anti-social tendencies, a literal maelstrom of "sinfulness" beneath the surface of their personalities.  The sensitive, trained eye can often discern the presence of the "sinful" propensities through the surface of their personalities; these propensities are so close to overt expression.

In psychoanalytic terms, the most salient mechanism of defense in the fundamentalist's array of neurotic defenses can be considered to be reaction formation.  This defense consists of the conversion into its opposite of unconscious and partially preconscious thought, attitudes, and wishes, such as hostile, asocial, and antisocial trends that are — as fundamentalists would on a conscious level, regard them — repugnant, ie., "sinful"

Characteristically, reaction formation is much less strong — even somewhat brittle, because it is not as basic, mostly due to its acquisition at a later stage of personality development — than many of the other mechanisms of defense, such as a repression.  Thus, the fundamentalist's neurotic defensive formation is subject to break down intermittently, such as may be manifested in a extramarital sexual venture.  In a similar vein reaction formation may permit the partial expression, in sustained but attenuated form as if through a screen, in manifest behavior of underlying, morally unacceptable trends against which it is supposedly arrayed, such as clandestine indulgence in pornography or the surreptitious diverting of monies, contributed by the public for religious purposes, for ones greedy use.

Thus, the fundamentalist in his or her own faηade of self-righteousness may, and commonly does, manifest only a thin, even translucent disguise of his or her underlying "sinfulness," which the neurotic defensive formation aims to hold in abeyance.  In brief, then, the fundamentalist not only possess s greater than average, troublesome degree of underlying socially and morally unacceptable trends, but he or she holds these "sinful" propensities in check only precariously.

When in argumentation centered on his religious belief system the fundamentalist sees himself in danger of as Vlaardingerbroek phrases it "being shown up;" he can be better understood as feeling threatened by the weakening — in the psychoanalytic sense — of one of the bulwarks in his neurotic personality structure.  This religious belief system, pivotal in his neurotic defenses, is prone — under the pressure of likely imminent weakening — to give rise to a charge of anxiety, sparked by the feared consequences of the possible surfacing into conscious awareness of his unconscious doubt.

In the same vein, when engaging fundamentalists in serious discussion challenging the validity of their religious beliefs, particularly concerning supernatural phenomena and the literal interpretation of biblical myths, they are virtually limited to countering the challenge, with emotionalism and over-righteousness, by reaffirming, in hackneyed phrases, their stock beliefs.  The fundamentalist appears unable, evidently, to rise above the level of reaffirmation, even if one points out to him his dogged failure to rise above this level.

The conclusion forces itself upon one that the religious indoctrination to which fundamentalists, including religious zealots, both expose themselves repeatedly and to which they are regularly subjected has the insidious effect of preventing the development of the ability to think critically about dogma they embrace or, if such ability has ever been acquired, to be paralyzed in exercising it.

It is safe to infer then, as perhaps an original discovery in religious psychotherapy, that the inculcation of "faith" by systematic indoctrination involves pari passu the prevention of the development of the capacity to adopt a critical attitude, to think analytically about the "faith or, if such capacity has ever been acquired, to stifle it.  Unquestionably, the perpetration of such a defect on the human mind is unconscionable and a tragic assault on the hard-won liberal tradition of our Western civilization.  Ironically, fundamentalists regard this abortion or paralysis of such ratiocinative powers as virtuous, and praiseworthy!

Still further, the fundamentalist also appears disposed, as an expression of his neurotic personality structure, to use the mini-guerrilla tactic of "cutting off," again and again, his opponent's efforts to voice his thoughts.  At the same time, the fundamentalist seems apt to augment such frustrating harassment by loud talking and, even more maddening, snickering at the points his opponent makes instead of replying thoughtfully to them (gallows humor).  That is to say, the fundamentalist repeatedly starts to talk in the midst of his opponent's attempts to express his thoughts, thereby "jamming" them.  The fundamentalist can be expected to persist in doing so even though his opponent confronts him, again and again, with the obstructionist nature of the tactic, the feeling of insecurity that prompts it, and its offending un-sportsman like, and harassing nature.  One gains the impression that the fundamentalist, by hostilely persisting with stone faced indifference, thereby reenacts in microcosm organized religion's long history of adamant suppression of dissent as "heresy."

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