Book Review: Freud & Jung on Religion


Book Review: Michael Palmer (2009).  Freud and Jung on Religion.  Routledge: London & New York.

Michael Palmer is perhaps best known for his 2010 book ‘The Atheists Creed’ in which he states in his ‘Credo’:

‘I believe that the path to individual and collective happiness lies in being educated to reality, and in being thus released from the irresponsible and pernicious illusion of religion, for which there is neither evidence nor need.’

Against Palmer’s creedal backdrop I approached this book with an element of trepidation; I was unsure as to how this self-avowed hostility to religion may have influenced the author’s objectivity in tackling such a nuanced, and indeed complicated subject.  I needn’t have worried; Palmer’s objectivity was exemplary, as was his ability to explain complex ideas and theories using language equally accessible to the non-specialist and specialist alike.

Palmer’s book is divided into two parts.  The first takes the reader on a fascinating journey that covers Freud’s character and background before moving on to a critical elucidation of his theory that religious phenomena can be understood as a neuroses rooted in sexual repression.

The second part of the book explores Jung’s growing unease with Freud’s sexual theory and subsequently articulates the key aspects underpinning his own assessment of the relationship between individual psychology and religious belief and practice.  Palmer makes the case that in essence, Jung’s theoretical framework is the antithesis of Freud’s; in doing so he explores Jung’s contention that it is the absence of religion that is a catalyst for neuroses.  Not only that, Palmer sets out in some detail the basis for Jung’s rejection of what he believed was Freud’s overemphasis on sexual theory and in doing so charts the development of the Jungian counter-argument.

Palmer concludes each section with his own critical appraisal of the competing theories as presented by the two protagonists in the debate.  This he does in a concise yet thoroughgoing manner producing a critique that is well-balanced and eloquently presented.  In the final analysis, Palmer highlights, with considerable rhetorical skill, the deficiencies in both theoretical constructs, namely Freud’s refusal to take seriously the metaphysical claims of religion and Jung’s radicalised notion of God’s immanence as a solely psychic reality.

Of particular interest was the critical appraisal of ‘Freud on Science and Religion’ presented by Palmer in Chapter 5.  In analysing Freud’s concept of religion, the author speculates that his subject would approve of the view espoused by some modern linguistic philosophers that religious statements are empirically unverifiable ‘psuedo-propositions’.  It therefore follows that in any intellectual hierarchy, scientific language, with its evidential value, effectively subjugates religious language and experience to an inferior position.  To this assertion, Palmer subjects Freud’s stance to a critical evaluation, and in doing so accumulates substantial requisite evidence which effectively refutes any claim of scientific superiority.  In the process he exposes Freud’s dogmatic, simplistic and erroneous assumptions, his rather shaky grasp of what science actually is and what in reality scientific theory can achieve within strictly delineated boundaries.  Palmer also cleverly highlights Freud’s use of ‘unverifiable objects’ (something he himself objected to) such as id, ego and super-ego in the construction of his theory, thus exposing Freud’s methodological inconsistency.  In drawing this thought-provoking and well-argued section to an end, Palmer correctly asserts that religious narrative ‘is not there to be tested, but derives its validity from within the community of beliefs and practices associated with a religious form of life’ (p.79).

This book is highly recommended for those interested in the historical and contemporary ideas that underpin the psychological understanding of religion.   Freudian and Jungian approaches are contrasted and compared in a manner that avoids complicated jargon and excessive detail making this book accessible to a wide-audience.  Quite an achievement.

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