What can psychoanalysis tell us about religious and scientific fundamentalism and those who profess the truth? Through psychoanalysis we find something that we might not expect on the surface level, something that once realized reveals aspects that typically remain hidden and unnoticed.
Take, for instance, American evangelical preacher, Pastor Ted Haggard, and the famed British evolutionary biologist, Dr. Richard Dawkins. In 2006 both had an encounter that is worthy of psychodynamic consideration.
Shortly after the release of “Jesus Camp,” a documentary in which Pastor Haggard spoke out against homosexuality and sin, Haggard acknowledged that he had an ongoing sexual affair with his personal trainer, Mike Jones, and used crystal methamphetamine. Haggard resigned from his ministry and underwent spiritual counseling, which he claims “cured” him of his homosexual desires. It is reported that he characterizes his homosexual encounter as a “massage gone awry".
What we take as an apparent fray between a man of faith and a man of science loses its transparency when looked at through the lens of psychoanalysis. In fact, what we will find is that, quite possibly, Pastor Ted Haggard is the real atheist and Dr. Richard Dawkins is the most fervent believer.
To understand this not-so-obvious paradox, we must understand three, basic psychodynamic concepts. We begin with the obvious hypocrisy of Pastor Haggard’s actions and beliefs. This is not an uncommon hypocrisy amongst those of faith. We often find the most enthusiastic believers to be the very ones who fall hardest from their professed beliefs. Is this chance? Or is there a correlation between the ecstatic and rigid evangelicalism against sin, and the all too common violation of God’s rules by those who preach it the loudest?
Fechner's iceberg analogy adapted to Freud's topography.
Freud taught us that even the most bizarre behavior makes sense when we consider the starting point of the thought. In this way, hypocrisy is not acting against a belief system, but rather, acting in accordance with an authentic desire or belief. Taken in this light, Pastor Haggard does not betray himself in his homosexual desire, but rather, betrays his homosexual desire. When we accept that Pastor Haggard desires the very thing he claims to detest, we shift the hypocrisy from his actions to his words.
Of course, psychoanalysis is all too familiar with this pattern and it has a name: reaction formation. We have desires, feelings, and beliefs that oftentimes conflict with the society and culture in which we live, and the image or persona we wish to portray to others and to ourselves. When we ignore what we truly desire, believe, or feel, because it is in conflict with what we want to desire, believe, or feel -or want others to believe that we desire, believe, or feel- we experience conflict. We deal with this conflict by desperately trying to protest against the very thing that we desire. The protest is often so passionate that it is suspect. It often comes across in a forced and unnatural protest. It can seem as if the person is more interested in convincing themselves rather than convincing others. The real conflict here is between the individual’s authentic way of being and their proposed view of themselves.
It is often taught that Freud proposed an “iceberg” topography of the psyche. In fact, there is no reference to the "iceberg" in any of Freud's writings. Still, the model remains useful for understanding the dynamics of the psyche. We refer to the superficial level of interaction as the conscious. The conscious level is what we know of others and of ourselves. This is the mask of the persona; the act that we perform for others and desperately strive to convince our self is true.
The unconscious aspect of the psyche is that which we are unaware of in ourselves. The unconscious can harbor some things about ourselves that we not only wish to keep hidden from those we are performing for, but also, keep hidden from our self. In this way, we keep unflattering and downright menacing aspects of ourselves from being realized. When an individual unconsciously uses most of their psychic energy in keeping disturbing things about themselves, hidden from themselves, they are said to be neurotic.
In psychoanalysis we have a number of patterned mechanisms that we use to keep blind of the disagreeable aspects of ourselves. Included in these defense mechanisms are the aforementioned reaction formation and projection.
If reaction formation is marked by the individual protesting against something to the point of absurdity, than projection is seeing clearly in others that which we are blind to in ourselves. The idea of projection is that we disown aspects of our own personality by projecting them on to others. We see this oftentimes in the homophobic. The individual who harbors a deep hatred and disgust, to the point of physically abusing or murdering another because of their presumed sexual preference, projects their own unconscious homosexual desires onto the other and then punishes and destroys that part of themselves -as if it were the other. In this way, much of the hatred and anger we see expressed towards others is truly a symbolic frustration and self-hatred projected onto another person.
We now see how both reaction formation and projection serve the individual in dealing with emotional incongruencies between whom they want to be, and how they want to be viewed, and whom they truly are in their most hidden depths. We often find that the critics of this view have the most to confront if they were to accept the model.
Let us take a look at Haggard and Dawkins through the psychoanalytic lens. In so doing we find examples of both reaction formation and projection that makes even the most absurd hypocrisy make complete sense, while bringing to light some rather unexpected aspects of each man’s personality and beliefs.
If we take from the outset that, what appears to be incongruent on the surface level, is completely congruent with the unconscious level, the hypocrisy becomes less of a mystery and more of a representation of that which is repressed. In this way, we find that both Haggard and Dawkins share something in common; they both hold an unyielding belief in being correct in their beliefs, beliefs that they not only evangelize to others through books, lectures, sermons, and films, but also seem to passionately protest with great emotion. It can be clearly seen that both men deeply care to convince us, and possibly themselves, that they are right. The very dogma that each holds is the quality they are blind to in themselves -and detest in the other.
Dawkins is known for his vehement disgust and proselytizing against belief and for evolutionary science. Haggard is known for his evangelizing for faith and the existence of God. Their messages, and the emotional fervor in which they are delivered, feels less like conviction and more like desperation with each word, interview, and documentary.
We see here a clear example of reaction formation. Dawkins and Haggard both protest so zealously against the other that we can only assume that they are fighting against some internal, unconscious doubt. Simply put, someone who is comfortable with his or her belief does not feel the need to so forcefully insist upon its acceptance. Haggard claims to want to save others from sin and Dawkins claims to wish to save others from the virus of belief, while they both go about trying to save themselves from that which frightens them most: namely that Dawkins truly fears that God does exist and Haggard truly fears that God does not exist! In a strange twist of reality, Dawkins emerges as the true believer whileHaggard is found to be suspect of the truth of God’s love. Haggard and Dawkins are both in a desperate attempt to save themselves from what they really are.
The apparent disdain that each man has for the other (at times we are not sure if they are going to attack or passionately embrace one another) is evident in the video interactions that have been published. This is a clear example of projection and leaves us with the sense that what each man hates in the other; he himself is in the most authentic sense.