Saturday, August 16, 2008

Bridging the Gap

This week, when I stopped at the library, I checked out Psychology and Religion by C. G. Jung. It is a short volume based on 1937 Terry Lectures presented at Yale.

I am nearly at the end of the book, and I am compelled to write about my impressions. It has provided me one of the most profound religious epiphanies, since the day I recognized god was a metaphor.

Jung has offered me a new perspective on an old mystery. While I can see in my past observations on religion that I have touched on similar ideas, I believe that my own observations only rippled across the surface, while Jung has gone down to fathoms I never imagined.

If I had to sum up Psychology and Religion, I would say that it is a message of bridging the gap between the conscious and the unconscious mind. Jung’s observations and speculations in this text, to a large degree, have since been fleshed out in neuroscientific research in a way that left me feeling that Jung’s intuitions were nearly prophetic.

At a time when Jung had to honestly write, “the unconscious mind [was] a mere assumption for the sake of convenience,” he was still comfortable assuming its existence.

Jung was unable to understand “who” was producing dreams, if not an unconscious aspect of human psyche. Dreams flow from our heads in unconscious states, with stories and images that are sometimes incredibly foreign to our conscious life. Physics is defied. We are surprised by plot changes. Dreams appear to be consciously observed content from something in our heads that is not consciously controlled or initiated. Something that is “me”—but that cannot be “me,” if “I” am conscious ego.

Jung found it beneficial to differentiate the conscious “me” (ego) from the subconscious entity for the purposes not only of examination, but also in working with his patients on a practical level. He used the term “self” to described the bundled package of all mind—conscious or otherwise. He used “I,” and variants of “I,” to represent ego. The subconscious aspects, then, are not what I consider to be “me,” but are still part of my “self,” according to Jung.

He admitted openly he had no idea what the subconscious was, exactly why it existed, or how it worked. “In reality I am totally unconscious of—in other words, I do not know at all—where [a voice in a dream] originates. I am not only incapable of producing the phenomena at will but I am also unable to anticipate the mental contents of [the voice]. Under such conditions it would be presumptuous to call the factor which produces the voice my mind…the fact that you perceive the voice in your dream proves nothing at all, for you can also hear the noises in the street, which you would not explain as your own.

“There is only one condition under which you might legitimately call the voice your own, namely, when you assume your conscious personality to be a part of a whole or to be a smaller circle contained in a bigger one.”

Jung’s assumption then was “human personality consists of two things: first, of consciousness and whatever this covers, and second, of an indefinitely large hinterland of unconscious psyche.” The problem for Jung was that he had no method to define the second aspect—or even to support its existence beyond his interpretations of his indirect observations. In Jung’s mind, there were only two choices: Dreams come from some unconscious aspect of our own minds, or they are put into our heads from an external source (such as the car noise). Since the human brain is a known mechanism for producing conscious thoughts and images in our heads, Jung saw no reason to look further for a source of the unconscious messages. To Jung, it was a safe assumption that whether we were aware of it or not, part of our self seemed capable of generating mental function that was, in an abstract way, detectible to our conscious minds.

Jung also expresses a keen awareness of what was known and what was conjecture. “If asked I shall surely stand by my convictions which do not go further than what I consider to be my actual knowledge. I am convinced of what I know. Everything else is hypothesis and beyond that I can leave a lot of things to the Unknown. They do not bother me. But they would begin to bother me, I am sure, if I felt that I ought to know something about them.” The context of this quote is in a discussion about religion, and specifically this passage follows directly a note dealing with religiously minded patients.

How familiar is this? How often do online apologists express, “If god didn’t make the world—then how did it get here? You don’t know!” To grasp tightly to a myth, no matter how true or untrue, how verified or unverified—is better than not knowing to these individuals. Religion presses us, then, to be uncomfortable with not knowing—uncomfortable to the point of embracing any explanation, no matter how fantastic.

If a patient had deep religious beliefs, Jung indicated he would not challenge them. He would work as a professional psychologist within the world constructed by the patient’s mind. In fact, he expresses that it is futile to attempt to do otherwise. “As long as such a defense works I shall not break it down, since I know that there must be powerful reasons why the patient has to think in such a narrow circle.”

I have admired the work inspired by Jung for some time. But I have also heard on many occasions that he was involved in a lot of woo. In reading this book, I find myself pleasantly surprised, then, by passages like this, “It would be a regrettable mistake if anybody should understand my observations to be a kind of proof of the existence of God. They prove only the existence of an archetypal image of the Deity, which to my mind is the most we can assert psychologically about God.” In other words, as far as Jung can tell, god exists as an idea.

Jung spends a considerable amount of real estate in the book to cover symbolic aspects of the number four in religious contexts. This ties into a particular case study he uses to illustrate many of his points. At first, I was completely dubious of this discussion. His client dreams of religious imagery that ties into the number four quite often. Jung provides examples of how the number four is used in the religion of the patient, who was raised Catholic, but who would have no more knowledge of ancient church writings than any layperson. Why would some Christian script from a millennia ago, talking about four, be significant? But, after reading further, I began to recognize that Jung is only looking to see if symbols, similar to those his patient is producing, subconsciously in a religious context, have been recorded by others with a similar religious context.

This ties into Jung’s idea of a Collective Unconscious, also known as the Objective Psyche. Jung differentiated between a personal unconscious and a collective unconscious. There are some experiences that impact us that are directly connected to the greater human experience. There are other experiences that impact us that are unique to us as individuals. When it comes to people, part of us is uniquely individual, and part of us is common to all humans. This is as true of human beings physically as it is mentally. Collective unconscious is that part of the unconscious mind that results from simply being a human animal, and not from individual, subjective experience or interpretation. There have been misguided attempts to promote this idea as some sort of “woo.” But it does not, for example, embody the idea that I can “remember” experiences of my great-great-grandmother. It means only that certain psychological aspects of my being are the result of my inescapable human aspects. And I necessarily share those aspects with other humans.

This is why Jung felt a need to examine antiquity to see if other Catholics shared the religious symbolism his patient’s subconscious mind was repeatedly thrusting into his dreams. Because Catholics share the same symbolic history in the context of similar religious upbringing, perhaps deciphering these symbols in the context of the patient’s familiar religion would help to flesh out whatever the subconscious was trying to relate to the conscious mind in the patient’s dreams.

Like Freud, Jung agreed that repression results in neurotic manifestations in the patient’s conscious existence. But he also felt that the unconscious/conscious divide exists for a reason. He held to a very evolutionary standpoint that because the divide exists, it must serve a purpose. And if there is benefit to evolving with an unconscious mind, then it would be “normal for a man to resist…the unconscious with all those tendencies and contents hitherto excluded from conscious life. They were excluded for a number of real and apparent reasons. Some are suppressed and some are repressed.” In other words, if the unconscious mind serves us, it makes sense that we would have an intuitive aversion to bringing it to our conscious awareness.

To Jung, our unconscious impulses, if left unchecked by the conscious ego, yield unhappy results. He uses mob mentality as an example of unsuppressed impulsive action and why it can be dangerous. All of us, he points out, to some degree suppress unconscious impulses that arise. This ties in with neuroscience (especially Crick and Koch), which has since illustrated that at least one function of conscious mind is to evaluate an act upon (or refuse to act upon) unconscious impulses that arise in a very mysterious fashion.

Suppression, Jung defines as a healthy, conscious inhibitor—a choice to not express an impulse. Repression, on the other hand is an unconscious or semi-conscious inhibition of an impulse. Jung expressed that from what he could tell, the conscious mind was a smaller and subordinate part of the greater mind, which again aligns with modern neuroscience. The unconscious mind initiates action, the conscious mind evaluates action. It is the gateway, the checkpoint, where impulses are either allowed to manifest or are suppressed. To Jung, a repressed impulse cannot be understood on a conscious level, because it is not impeded on any fully conscious level.

Phobia was one example that came to my own mind immediately. I have seen people both paralyzed with fear and white knuckled with fear of the most mundane situations and objects. When I’ve asked what exactly they are afraid of, the responses I get are not rational. I’m sure they honestly express their immediate feelings; but they do not adequately explain the reaction I am witnessing. The person, himself or herself, does not consciously understand why they have been overtaken with ridiculous levels of fear due only to their proximity to an extremely mundane situation or object. And yet, their unconscious mind is generating in their conscious mind overwhelming fear. Because it is not understood, it becomes difficult for the individual to rationalize the situation. So, there is no means to control the reaction. Their sense, literally, breaks down, and they become a mere vessel of full-bore fear in the face of what most of us consider to be nothing at all.

So, it does make sense that the less we understand our subjugation of our unconscious impulses, the worse their impact—the rebellion of the subconscious impulse, if I can personify it—will be to our conscious experience.

In Jung’s opinion, the Catholic religion, despite it’s reputation with Hell, was good at alleviating unconscious tension. The church was a supreme authority between man and god—which symbolizes the unconscious mind. As a Catholic, I could alleviate my plagued conscience at any time, merely by going to my local church and engaging in the ritual of confession. The church, as the ultimate authority on all things spiritual, reliably assured me that whatever I had done, I was now forgiven and all was absolved. With the rise of Protestantism, Jung was concerned that removing that authority would leave people with a doubt regarding their absolution—and a subsequent rise in neurotic manifestations. As a Protestant, there is no symbol (no priest) to tell me that I have been cured of my sin. Jung points out that with the fall of the church authority, we should expect that Protestants would be left foundering on their own—accounting for the myriad Protestant denominations. Since god is a symbol, a metaphor, of the human mind, spawned from the collective unconscious, filtered through the personal unconscious and then submitted to the conscious mind for interpretation, how could humans produce an unfractured model, without a strong central authority, such as the Catholic Church had provided from potentially as far back as the birth of the Christian religion?

Christianity, itself, Jung asserted, had broken out of a traditional religious symbolism that relied heavily on the number four. Whether there is any merit to his evaluation of the trinity as an incomplete symbol for what should be a four-part god, I cannot say. But his conclusions, whether his methods were valid in this regard or not, were astonishingly on target.

After leaving the church, I recall reading Eastern religious philosophy where the concept of god as being representative of a complete whole contrasted sharply with my Christian upbringing. In the East, there is a concept of a unity, a one complete symbol that encompasses everything. “All things are one thing” would be perhaps a good way to put it. In some Asian languages, there is the idea of “the Universe of 10,000 things,” but also the universe as a single, whole, complete unit. In Christianity, we see a divide of opposing natures. Heaven and Earth, Good and Evil, Spirit and Flesh, Male and Female. According to the Eastern views, this is unnecessarily divisive and not generally a healthy perspective. For a thing to be complete, it must encompass Heaven AND Earth, Good AND Evil, Spirit AND Flesh, Male AND Female.

In Christianity, god is the god of good. And evil is the domain outside of god’s context. Likewise, god appears to lack a feminine presence. Christianity is replete with concepts of an incomplete, and according to Jung, therefore inadequate, god symbol. Jung believed this was significant because god is a symbol meant to represent the human being’s concept of self. And clearly there are some key elements of self expunged from the Christian god symbol. If my conscious model violates my unconscious model, then I am, in effect, denying aspects of my self in a repressive, rather than suppressive way. And, Jung observed, this will create consciously manifesting problems for individuals.

The church, according to Jung’s model, has made open attempts to plug the holes in the incompleteness of their god symbol. “The Devil” has been incorporated as the embodiment of that which is not accounted for by the Christian god—those aspects of the self that are negatively interpreted by the religion. And Mary was at once held up to produce a symbol to embody the feminine aspect. Likewise, the Holy Spirit has been related to a feminine presence in the Gnostic texts. What is missing in the model should be assumed to be accounted for somewhere in the context of the greater set of symbols, according to Jung. And, whether via accuracy or accident, the model works.

According to Jung, it is dangerous for a person to reject a natural part of his or her own being. It is one thing to apply appropriate suppression of inappropriate impulses. But to foster self-loathing of those impulses is to encourage unhealthy repression and denial. Where religion encourages this, it necessarily causes harm to the self, or even the “soul” as Jung also referred to it (due to the religious context of this work).

The unconscious impulses that arise consciously in all of us contain some unflattering data about ourselves on occasion. The more comfortable with and aware of this we are, the better for our mental health. The more we torture ourselves for being what and who were are, the worse off we become. “Freud has discovered repression as one of the main mechanisms in the making of neurosis…Suppression may cause worry, conflict and suffering, but never causes a neurosis of one of the usual patterns.” Jung explains why. “If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is steadily subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected. It is, moreover, liable to burst forth in a moment of unawareness. At all events, it forms an unconscious snag, blocking the most well-meaning attempts.” Further in talking about the unconscious negatively held personality aspects (“the shadow”), Jung says, “…if such a case wants to be cured it is necessary to find a way in which man’s conscious personality and his shadow can live together.”

In other words, only by understanding and accepting the things I dislike about myself, can I hope to incorporate them into my life in an adequately controlled fashion.

Because the subconscious mind relates to the conscious mind in a highly symbolic and indirect fashion (mysteriously generated impulses we may or may not understand and surreal dreams that speak to us in our sleep), it is natural for people to be mystified, fearful and in awe. God as a symbol for the mental self, then, makes perfect sense. Ideas come to us, as if from some external source. “We,” the ego, did not generate them—and yet, there they are—as if from some other personage. In fact, Jung actually suggests that at times it might be useful to model the subconscious as a separate personality, in order to examine it as separate from the ego. Is it any wonder so many people would become confused and project it into their conscious reality as a separate personality?

Perhaps the most interesting assessment Jung offers is the idea of religion as a purified form of the unconscious symbols of the self, where myriad people over great spans of time have added to the menagerie of symbols to produce a set of current symbols that relate to the individual’s unconscious model of self in a far more powerful way than any one human’s subconscious imagery ever could. In other words, it makes sense that religion will “speak to us” and ring true, the more it accurately models the self. Think about humanity on the whole, and consider the impact this system of symbols will have on the psyche of the average Joe on the street. It has become so convincing an expression of “truth” to such a great number of average citizens, purely because it has grown into such a perfect set of symbols that model the self. It confuses many into accepting that it represents a reality that can be, or even should be, consciously understood using the rules of conscious logic. (And anyone who has dialogued with a fundamentalist Christian apologist will understand how badly that endeavor must fail.)

Bridging the gap, attempting to allow the conscious and unconscious mind to meet halfway and come to some amicable understanding, is an understandable endeavor. Meditation, employed in many cultures, is an attempt to bring the conscious mind “down” to subconscious levels. Lucid Dreaming attempts the same, as, historically, has mystic and religious hallucinogenic drug use. Fasting, going without sleep, stressing the body in order to bring the unconscious impulses to light during a conscious context, is familiar to many cultures—the religious experience or the mystic vision. Modern religion, like art, is an attempt to bring the subconscious to the realm of the conscious.

The problem is that the conscious mind has not completely cracked the code of subconscious language. We recognize many of the symbols, but we can’t seem to agree on exactly what they mean or represent. They appear to be, to some degree, open to subjective interpretation. Certainly that is the nature of symbols in general. But where we have an utterly amorphous symbol, like “god”—totally without a referent in reality—that represents a practically unknown mechanism, like the subconscious mind—how can we hope to apply any objective interpretation? All interpretations would spawn from the individual’s understanding of his or her own subconscious impulses—some of which would be collective, others of which must be personal. Endowed with broad appeal and left to subjective interpretation—it has what it takes to endure for as long as the subconscious mind remains shrouded in mystery. If Jung’s interpretations and predictions apply, I would wager that if the human unconscious is ever fully understood and explained, the Christian god will go the way of the Greek, Roman, and Egyptian gods.

As Jung declares, “Why have the antique gods lost their prestige and their effect upon human souls? It was because the Olympic gods had served their time and a new mystery began: God became man.”

But, what can we do if we are in the middle of a larger culture that subscribes to a religious model that fails to adequately and fully represent the “self” and that is accepted as literal truth rather than understood as symbol? Speaking of addressing any social dilemma, Jung points out “collectives are mere accumulations of individuals, their problems are also accumulations of individual problems…they are only solved by a general change of attitude. And the change does not begin with propaganda and mass meetings, or with violence. It begins with a change in individuals. It will continue as a transformation of their personal likes and dislikes, of their outlook on life and of their values, and only the accumulation of such individual changes will produce a collective solution.” The best way I know to accomplish this is to let people know you are an atheist. It’s hard to be prejudiced against atheists when your friend, son, wife, mother, coworker, is an atheist, and someone you know and like. As far as I know this is the best way to affect individual assessments.

I still have a few more pages yet to read. But I’ll wrap up for now with the quote that spawned this article. The context is in relating the experience of a patient finding resolution to a neurotic situation. Jung describes this as a “religious experience” or “conversion”—but means only positively life-altering, not “religious” in the sense of supernatural beliefs:

“If you sum up what people tell you about their experience, you can formulate it about in this way: They came to themselves, they could accept themselves, they were able to become reconciled to themselves and by this they were also reconciled to adverse circumstances and events. This is much like what was formerly expressed by saying: He has made his peace with God, he has sacrificed his own will, he has submitted himself to the will of God.”

If god is the modern symbol of the whole of man—the self, in the language of the subconscious—making peace with god and subjecting oneself to god’s will translates directly into making peace with oneself and coming to regard oneself as whole by accepting all aspects of one’s personality without self-loathing, repression, or denial.

At this point, I’m seriously considering rereading the New Testament replacing “god” with “self” to see what sorts of new meanings the text takes on. Just in Jung’s small example of the use of “god’s will,” I see entirely new, and even useful insight.

Addendum: Of course, as I wrapped the final pages, I found a provocative quote: “The philosophy of the Upanishads corresponds to a psychology that long ago recognized the relativity of the gods. This is not to be confounded with such a stupid error as atheism.” I reminded myself this was written in the 1930s, and that I have to consider the political climate and the meaning of “atheist” at the time Jung was presenting. In reading further, I was somewhat confounded because it is obvious to me that, judging solely from the context of this book, Jung is as much an atheist as any atheist I’ve ever met. He no more puts forward a literal god being than I would. And his statement appears to be aimed at a despiritualization that he fears will have negative effects on society. That while some individuals can do well without religious imagery, many will not stand as well on their own merits. I have no idea whether or not that prediction would bear up.

I must recognize, however, that in Jung’s view, when a patient is faced with a choice of the “devil and the deep sea,” (his religion or his neurosis), “the devil is at least somewhat heroic, but the sea is spiritual death. The well-meaning rationalist will point out that…I replace an honest neurosis by the cheat of a religious belief…I must point out that there is no question of belief, but of experience…Is there, as a matter of fact, any better truth about ultimate things than the one that helps you to live?...The thing that cures the neurosis must be as convincing as the neurosis…It must be a very real illusion…But what is the difference between a real illusion and a healing religious experience? It is merely a difference in words.”

Whatever brand of atheism Jung considered as “stupid error,” he is clearly espousing what today, to any literalist or fundamentalist Christian, would be clear, inarguably atheistic views.


  1. I actually managed to read it all.

    While I'm sure the concept of God as self would prove an interesting study, it working I think only adds to the idea that trying to formulate an objective understanding to the Bible as symbolism is just as absurd as accepting the literal meaning of it.

    My earliest idea of symbolic representation of the abrahamic god was as a metaphore for existence itself. Always existent, all-powerful, all-knowing, all things. Is all-good and all-bad for seemingly random reasons. I think it works well, but would I actually believe that was the intention? I'd put the odds quite low.

  2. I blame Jung for being one of the few who really helped muddle the idea that atheism can be some form of religion.

    He works amazingly well when you apply his work to something like screenwriting and how people connect since we are all the same on a fundamental level... but beyond that Jung's god as self has seriously screwed so many people up into believing that such a thing IS atheism.

    Okay so it's not really Jung's fault but could you imagine how much time we could save in conversation with theists if Jung had used some other term.


  3. I found this interesting but tedious - please try to be brief next time. Some of us are not quite up to your literary prowess and I am sure you made some very convincing points which I missed through lack of stamina.

    Many modern theologians are claiming that god is a metaphor for something we do not yet understand but may later turn out to be something tangible.

    If we allow this, then we let them creep away from centuries of lies perpetrated in very church and temple.

  4. I don't think that Jung puts forward that the symbolism is intentional. In fact, I would say he is a strong advocate that symbolism by and large is hardly ever intentionally applied. Especially with regard to religion, real believers have symbols that surface--and it's not as important to Jung why they surface as simply acknowledging that they do surface, and that they appear to repeat (at least that's his contention).

    His concept is with so many psyches, past and present, adding to, and editing, the list of religious symbols--some personal, some collective--it's most likely that the symbols that will endure and appeal will be the ones _with_ the broadest appeal. So that over 2,000 years or more, you get a system of filtered symbols--most likely unconsciously applied, and probably unconsciously recognized (but very attractive to many people)--if in fact the collective unconscious model holds any weight.

    If I didn't make that clear, I appreciate you bringing it up so that I could clarify. I don't want to misrepresent what Jung does/does not put forward.


  5. You bring up another excellent point that I may well have confused in the post. We have a US flag that has 50 stars upon it. If I go out and take a poll and ask people on the streets in the US--what do the stars represent on the US flag? Nearly all of them--down to the youngest elementary school child--will answer correctly that they represent states.

    If I ask them "why are stars used to represent states?" I probably won't get one person who claims they know--but some might wager guesses.

    When you say that god represented existence to you--that is the stars representing states. What Jung is asking is "Why did you choose the god symbol to represent existence?" What do stars have to do with states? Also, Jung would ask--why are there so many stars used on national and state flags?

    I also used god to represent existence. However, I have to admit that I adopted an old symbol to apply. God (the symbol) existed long before I applied it to existence. Why was the symbol initially created?

    Jung can't help but recognize that we have in our heads, another "mind" of which we're unaware except for cryptic messages and impulses we don't seem to consciously generate. His assertion is that this other mind has inspired god. That from an evolutionary standpoint, when our "conscious" mind spawned, it had to acknowledge the existence of some"one" else communicating to it from seemingly out of nowhere. It made "god." God, in Jung's opinion, is the product of the human consciousness trying to make sense of and account for the "other personality"--the unconscious.

    Now, our personal unconscious applications of the symbol once it's created are less important to his discussion--but they do address the idea of "would god die if we demystified the subconscious--since we can apply god elsewhere?"

    Oddly enough, in reading Sam Harris this morning, I came across this quote: "What makes one person happier than another? Why is love more conducive to happiness than hate?...Is the ego an illusion, and, if so, what implications does this have for human life?...These are ultimately questions for a mature science of the mind. If we ever develop such a science, most of our religious texts will be no more useful to mystics than they now are to astronomers."

    Of course, that doesn't clinch it by any means. Jung, Sam, and I may all be wrong about that. "God knows" god has survived this long in the face of social and educational advances. So, who can say for sure if new applications, such as "god = existence" could not be successfully applied to keep the ball rolling?

  6. Really interesting post as always, Ms. Harris. I'd comment but I should probably leave it to the more well-informed readers.

    The very fact that the concept of picking up a book(what's this "libery" you speak of?) is a completely alien concept to me should give everyone an idea of the magnitude of my inadequacy. =D

    So, will this be your subject for today's show?. If I'm not mistaken, it's your turn to co-host. If it isn't, I hope you'll consider it for a future episode.

  7. I didn't mean to imply the book's focus was on the symbolic nature of the Bible, rather just something that came to mind about your intent to further investigate the suggested "self" symbolism.

    It certainly feels a bit uncomfortable to disagree with one of the greatest psychologists, meanwhile having no credentials, but I don't think the concept of a god would be derived from the subconscious (at least not in the way I'm understanding he said it does). The subconscious impulses would do well to sustain the concept, but create I don't see. I guess that's where actually reading the book itself would help.

    If I ask them "why are stars used to represent states?" I probably won't get one person who claims they know--but some might wager guesses.

    I really like that example, because thus is the nature of symbolism. Without the author outright stating the intended meaning, there can be no conclusion. My example was directly aiming for this point. The reason I don't follow Jung's point is that I only had a concept of god in a truly atheistic fashion -- in response to religious claims.

    The "existence" angle only came from considering that if I don't think the Bible is true, it was probably written as fiction to begin with. If so, what could it be saying? In that way, I was applying the existence label to god instead of the other way around. Due to never having been religious, I don't follow the process of applying god to something, but my mind even in areas outside of religion is one of the worst representations of the majority possible.

  8. Hi Tracie, long time no see.
    I have never read Yung. In pop psych I am limited to Boyer and Pinker but given your review I think my own anecdotal experience is more in line with Yung’s view.
    When working through my thoughts on atheism I ponder the notion that I should not be an atheist as I know who god is and where he resides, a projection of self identity in the imagination of the believer.
    I do at times avoid calling out my atheism with people I like or wish to not offend because I feel that I am not denouncing their god per se but their own identity. Of course, if I am talking to an ass I will point out that they are their own god and god is a moron.

  9. Theo:

    I agree the post is too long. However, I was unable to cut more than I did (believe me, I cut). It was more an article length and less a blog length, but I believed it was worth saying, and even after saying it Zurhan’s post forced me to realize that parts would have benefited by still more clarification. I wish I could have been more aware of where content was not relevant, but I was unable (sure a potential shortcoming of my own and not a necessary reality of the content) to identify areas where cuts would not impeded the clarity of what I wanted to express.

    Of course, I say all this, then offer up the verbose monstrosity below. I apologize. I’m not the most efficient wordsmith. You are right.

    >god is a metaphor for something we do not yet understand but may later turn out to be something tangible. If we allow this, then we let them creep away from centuries of lies perpetrated in very church and temple.

    I am less comfortable with “lie” than I am with “falsehood.” Statements are either true or false. Lies are intentionally promoted falsehoods. I do not believe most theists—even including theist leaders do not believe to some degree what they promote as religious truth. I also do not doubt that there are exceptions—people with no acceptance of the falsehoods who use the beliefs of others to take advantage of them. But I accept, like Sam Harris, that most believers really do consciously believe what they say they do. And I’ve even heard Matt describe the testimony of early witnesses as being potentially “honestly mistaken” (in response to a the question “why would they lie?”)

    I guess my question would be—if god is a metaphor for something, how can we not “allow” that message without stifling what is true in order to promote our own message? And how is that different than what we accuse religion of doing? If “god is a metaphor” is uncomfortable, but turns out to be true—don’t we simply have an obligation to live with that truth and come to grips with it?

    Another question is: Do you consider a metaphor to be a lie or even a falsehood? If I write a poem wherein I call my lover’s eyes stars, is that false or is it metaphor? “His eyes are bright and shining stars.” Let’s say 1,000 years hence, someone promotes that this poem is support that there were people who used to exist with eyes that consisted of molten masses of celestial gasses. If they really believe it—where is the problem? I submit the problem is in their acceptance of the metaphor as literal truth and not as metaphor.

    Alternately, people use language. All over the globe. We are, inherently creatures immersed in mental symbolism. Additionally, some cultures went beyond the extreme use of language (symbolic and abstract representation of reality) to written language—another abstraction further from the reality. Would it be a stretch to ponder that perhaps the sounds and symbols we use to represent a thing like an “apple” were not chosen from conscious, rational reasons? That maybe language developed with symbols that are abstractions that even those who created it don’t understand?

    Where do symbols come from? Why do I use X to “represent” Y—especially when X and Y do not appear to be related logically? Phobias are examples of unrelated symbols that people produce in their own minds that they don’t understand. Why should a person who has a fear of making decisions project that fear onto heights, for example? Certainly there is a logical connection, but not a conscious logical connection. The person may require years of therapy to discover that their fear of heights reflects the idea that “if I make a wrong move—I could die”—which ties into the idea that I exaggerate the potential consequences of my decisions in my daily life—perhaps due to an authoritarian upbringing? Who could blame someone for not making that connection consciously? And yet, phobias are not uncommon.

    Religious metaphor may be produced as symbols that even the originator does not understand. And he/she may think they have divine origin. The idea of a symbol is to make a larger or abstract concept more mentally accessible. Logos are great examples of this. Flags are as well. To many people, the American flag represents not only America, but Freedom. Without a symbol, “freedom” would be extremely hard to observe. As would infinity. As would my own personal experience.

    On the show yesterday, we discussed science, philosophy and religion and what they have to say about objects. Science is very well expressed using language. Mechanisms can be described extremely accurately as soon as we have a vocabulary, because we can point magnesium and say is “magnesium.” Philosophy describes meaning. Meaning is easy to express in language. The flag means freedom. We can apply words like autonomy—that we all understand. And meaning can be expressed pretty well with language. But this doesn’t work as well with experience. If I describe to you the symphony I attended last Friday—can I ever impart to you the “experience” of attending the symphony simply by using words to describe it to you?

    So many times we hear theists talk about their overwhelming feelings. They want so badly to share that experience with other people. This isn’t just Christians—and to be fair, this isn’t just religion, theistic or otherwise. War veterans who fought at Normandy have annual meetings. Why? Because people generally have an urge to share their experience. The men who fought at Normandy express sometimes that they don’t feel they can share the experience with people who weren’t there. Only other men who were there, they believe, can truly understand the experience.

    Theists describe experiences that even atheists can often relate to. Awe in the face of nature. It is expressed by humans regardless of theistic belief. For some people, it is hard to accept they can’t provide some means of accurate expression of what they’re feeling, and they reach for symbols. They use metaphors or actual physical symbols to express and be able to share their experiences in some way. Religion/supernatural beliefs are at least as common around the globe as language. In fact, some theists use this in order to assert that religion represents a literal truth. For example, if we see flood stories in cultures where cultural assimilation does not appear to account for their story in relation to other divine flood stories, how can that be explained?

    Jung felt it was collective unconscious. To some degree, the same symbols may come up from people when they’re placed in the same circumstances—because we all have human brains that cause similar mental function. Campbell took it further to say that basically not everyone will come up with a flood story—they have to live near a river. But if cultures who are not in contact with one another, who live on rivers, produce divine flood stories, why should that be a surprise? If we take the materialist view (collective unconscious), that Jung put forward, it’s no surprise at all. If the divine explanation is correct, then we should expect flood stories that cannot be explained by assimilation that also do not correspond to people with a history of living on a river. Campbell would assert that this is the type of thing we just don’t find. (And of course we have geological evidence against the flood idea—but I’m not addressing here whether or not the flood is true from a practical standpoint. I’m addressing what it means that we see flood stories in disconnected cultures).


    I appreciated your posts.

    >It certainly feels a bit uncomfortable to disagree with one of the greatest psychologists

    Nobody is beyond question. And Jung most especially called much of his work “hypothesis.” He didn’t claim that the sources of what he observed were by any means known. He only reported what he was observing and offered his thoughts about what was causing what he was observing. He did put forward in this book, however, that there was no reason to not posit a material cause.

    >but I don't think the concept of a god would be derived from the subconscious (at least not in the way I'm understanding he said it does). The subconscious impulses would do well to sustain the concept, but create I don't see.

    The subconscious produces all sorts of symbols. I have met artists, for example, who express that they often don’t feel they fully understand what they paint until after they’ve painted it. Phobias are symbols of fears that are often repressed. The inexpressible, in my mind, would be one of the main things that would be prone to being converted into a symbol. But maybe I am not fully understanding your objection?

    >Without the author outright stating the intended meaning, there can be no conclusion.

    Is it possible that the author himself is unaware of his meaning unconscious meaning? For example, a phobic person can consciously relate that they fear snakes. However, they may not be consciously able to tell you why. Again it’s the same as the stars. What if the mind producing the phobia doesn’t understand the logic behind the symbol? Phobic people are classic examples of this. And I assert that often fictional stories and art fall to this same model. Can someone write fiction consciously choosing all aspects of the story? I suppose. Do I believe all fiction writers, themselves, understand why all the symbols they used were chosen to represent what they are trying to express? I have no reason to believe that is the case. If a character eats an apple, is that an analogy to Eden or just an apple? Why didn’t the storyteller choose any of the other myriad foods available instead? If he says “it’s just an apple,” could he, himself, be wrong? Could he have chosen the apple for reasons in his own mind that even he is unaware of? Yes. We can observe people do this.

    >The reason I don't follow Jung's point is that I only had a concept of god in a truly atheistic fashion -- in response to religious claims.

    That is a fair statement. I don’t think Jung is claiming that nobody can use a symbol for anything other than what it was generated for. Someone for example, might burn a US flag. Some observers, who hold the flag represents freedom, would consider it an assault on the idea of freedom. But the one burning the flag may be very much in favor of freedom and may be making a statement that our current government policies are destroying freedom. By destroying a flag, they are symbolizing the destruction of freedom. Ironically, both parties appreciate freedom. But because of their disagreement about what the symbol means, they could end up being emotionally (or even physically) opposed to one another.

    >it was probably written as fiction to begin with.

    This is not a safe assumption. The person writing may or may not have believed what they were writing. I believe it was fiction in the sense that it is not literally true. But whether the author held it to be literally true or fun stories (that later came to be held as true), I do not know. And either is possible depending on the book in question.

    >If so, what could it be saying?

    Even if not, what could it be saying? To me, the intention of the author—whether he believed it or not—is less relevant that what was meant. And the author may or may not be able to explain

    >never having been religious, I don't follow the process of applying god to something

    But you have heard religious people talk about their personal experience as their experience “with god.” Even miracles are a good example. The most mundane things are given divine meaning. “I prayed to find my keys, and there they were!” Meanwhile, even a nonreligious person might use the word miracle to express an experience with long odds—but only if the experience comes with deep emotional meaning. For example, if I take into consideration all the factors involved in my stepping on a piece of gum one day—what are the odds? Gum had to be invented. That particular piece had to be manufactured and distributed by a vendor and purchased by someone who came to the exact location I would occupy later! I then had to arrive on the spot before the gum was cleaned up or hardened so that it wouldn’t stick to my shoe! And that’s just a small part. My parents had to birth me; the parents of the gum manufacturer and the factory workers and guys who invented electronic assembly plants…all had birth them! Think of the crazy level of “just the right combination” that had to occur to get me to end up with gum on my shoe.

    But how many people would label that “a miracle?” Just about nobody. So, “long odds” isn’t enough to make a “miracle” in the mind. On the other hand, if my life is in danger, and I nearly get killed, and some longshot saves my life—it would not be unusual for even me, as an atheist, to say, “it was a miracle they found me when they did! Another five minutes and I’d have been dead!” Other atheists would understand what I mean—that it is just a secular expression of the idea that long odds combined with emotional experience to make this particular set of long odds VERY meaningful to me personally.

    It’s the experience of subconscious that brings out weird divine symbols. Drug experiences, deprivation experiences, near death experiences. People have trouble putting them into a context. They’re hard to express and they’re generally not consciously rational (or rationally interpreted). And people slap a symbol on them because they don’t know how else to define these events. People can be overwhelmed by these things and simply not know how to contextualize them without some more tangible something to relate them to—which is where symbol comes in.

    To me, that makes sense, but that’s just me.


    >I should not be an atheist as I know who god is and where he resides, a projection of self identity in the imagination of the believer.

    That’s similar to my response to pantheism. If their god is the universe, then I can say I’ve seen their god. But that’s just a definitional issue. I would say that what you’re describing is “I understand god is really a concept and really a symbol.” But does that make me a theist? Not in the conventional sense. But I get what you’re saying, I think.

    Thanks to anyone who actually did put in the effort to plow through this beast of a post. I truly appreciate it.

  10. Excellent post, Tracie. I've long been fascinated with the unconcious, subconcious, etc, and the language and meaning of metaphore and symbol. I've not read any of Jung's works themselves, but I've long been exposed to his theories.

    I disagree that your post was too long... but perhaps future posts of similar lengths could be behind cuts, for those who don't like length? That seems the accepted thing to do in blogs these days.


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