Psychoanalytic ideas have been immensely influential in Western thought for the past 100 years, since the inception of this intellectual movement by Sigmund Freud.
How does one decide whether an idea or an explanation is psychoanalytic? Psychoanalytic writings can be recognized through their use of a common vocabulary that has become, over the years, part of everyday intellectual discourse: conscious and unconscious, id, ego, superego, primary process, projection, object relations, identification, and defense mechanisms. There is a large body of literature, created by a large group of authors who share common assumptions about personality dynamics. Psychoanalysis is known today as a personality theory, as a theory (and a practice) of psychotherapy, and then as a psychological theory of culture. Here we are going to deal with psychoanalysis as a general theory of human behavior, leading to applications in the analysis of culture. We are interested in the treatment of religion as one variety of the latter.
Two assumptions were suggested by Sigmund Freud to characterize his approach. The first states that all psychic processes are strictly determined (no accidents, chance events, or miracles can be referred to as explanations); the second states that unconscious mental processes exist and exert significant influences on behavior. These unconscious forces shape much of the individual's emotional and interpersonal experiences. We all are ready to admit momentary, fleeting, childish, irrational thoughts, but we consider these experiences marginal. Psychoanalysis claims that they may be much more than trivial or marginal and that unconscious processes are possibly the main determinants of observable behavior.
The emphasis on unconscious processes in personality can be summed up as follows:
1. Large parts of the personality are unconscious, and these are the more important ones.
2. Unconscious memory is the repository of significant early experience.
3. In an adult, unconscious ideas are projected, creating severe distortions of reality, especially interpersonal reality.
Psychoanalysis is a theory of struggle, conflict, and compromise, assuming the dynamic nature of human behavior, always resulting from conflict and change. Additional assumptions reflect the idea of overdetermination and the multiple functions of behavior. The overdetermination assumption states that any segment of behavior may have many preceding causes. This is tied to a developmental, or historical, emphasis, leading us to seek first causes in any individual's personal history and unique experiences.
Psychoanalysis proposes a universal sequence of psychological development, which becomes a basic epistemological ordering of the world and of individual personality, culture, and humanity. The universal experience of the human infant includes a developing awareness of three realms, always in the following order: first, one's body and its experienced needs; second, awareness of the existence of another human; third, knowledge and emotional investment in relations between itself and other humans. All further experiences must be based on these early experiences, acquired in that order, and will be assimilated into that order. The existence of such a universal sequence cannot be challenged, and therein lies the attraction of psychoanalysis for those wanting to understand not only the human personality but also human society and culture.
The psychoanalytic view of human motivation is often regarded as utterly pessimistic, but we have to admit that it is realistic. Judging by their conscious and unconscious drives, humans are undeniably nasty and brutish, aggressive, and infantile. However, beyond this bleak picture of immorality and perversity lies the capacity for sublimation, love, and cultural creativity.