D M Black

Sample psychoanalytic paper (2)

First published in the British Journal of Psychotherapy 31: 4, pp 510-523, November 2015

Religion as the Affirmation of Values[1]

David M. Black

"Religion is a deep, distinct and comprehensive world-view: it holds that inherent, objective value permeates everything, that the universe and its creatures are awe-inspiring, that human life has purpose and the universe order. A belief in a god is only one possible manifestation or consequence of that deeper worldview." – Ronald Dworkin

Abstract. This paper starts from the thought that we cannot take for granted that a society's highest values will survive in the long term as effective motivators within that society. By 'highest values' I mean values such as justice, concern for members of weak and minority groups, and respect for promises and for the attempt to speak truthfully – values that apply at the highest level of generality. If they are to survive and to be effective, two things may be necessary: firstly, unpredictable 'epiphanic' moments in which the power of these values is emotionally experienced by individuals, and secondly, institutions and a vocabulary in which these values can be remembered, discussed, and affirmed in emotionally and imaginatively impactful ways. I shall suggest, with reference in particular to the thought of Emmanuel Levinas and Ronald Dworkin, that the second of these factors, the remembering and affirmation of values, marks out the crucial, perhaps even the irreplaceable, contribution of a 'religion' to a society. The failure, within psychoanalysis and also more widely, to appreciate the working of this function in a society over generations may mean that the consequences of 'growing out of religion' (Winnicott) have not yet been adequately recognized.


Everyone seems to know what a religion is, but in fact there is no consensus. If we look at a slate of views, taken almost at random from well-known thinkers, we find Marx describing religion as 'the heart of a heartless world', Durkheim emphasizing that religion unites a 'moral community' by means of ceremonial, William James describing it as the feelings of 'men in their solitude', Rudolf Otto speaking of it as arising from an encounter with ‘the numinous’, Freud suggesting it is defined by belief in a Supreme Being and an afterlife, Ninian Smart concerned for it as 'activities in a doctrinal context' – and so on. As with the blind sages and the elephant, each grasps something, undoubtedly, but we get little sense of a coherent beast.

Rather than attempt another definition, I have approached the question from a different angle, and asked: What would get lost if religion got lost? By 'religion' in this paper I mean major developed religious traditions such as Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism. Many self-consciously scientific thinkers, including T.H. Huxley, Freud and recently Richard Dawkins, have appeared to think that we could ‘grow out of religion’ (Winnicott's phrase – see Parker 2011, 1), that religion could be replaced by 'rational thinking' without serious loss. Are they right?

When I studied philosophy in the 1960s, the prestige of scientific thought seemed overwhelming. It had arrived, in Anglo-American philosophy, at the beliefs of logical positivism and analytic philosophy, which in essence said there was no reality, no meaning, in the traditional questions of metaphysics. Values and preferences, in particular, were merely expressions of personal taste. The questions philosophers should be asking were questions about language, aimed at clarifying verbal confusion. Many of my teachers in Edinburgh University's philosophy department conveyed a sense of disappointment and anti-climax when they had to speak about contemporary philosophy: they preferred to discuss the great thinkers of the past.

After leaving university, like many others at that time, I discovered Buddhism, and realized I was meeting something more meaningful than analytic philosophy in terms of how I wanted to live my life. Later, I didn’t lose touch with that realization, but it went on the back-burner when I embarked on a career in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis.

In psychoanalytic practice, there was no question that values were taken seriously. There was the fundamental value of one’s duty to one’s patient, and there were the many concerns with value that are summed up in speaking of the oscillation between paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions, the perception of others, in our rather clumsy vocabulary, as ‘part-objects’ or ‘whole objects’. But there seemed to be a huge void in psychoanalysis. Apart from one's current emotions, there was no basis in theory for these values. They were taken very seriously, the moral commitment of psychoanalysts was in general very impressive, but there was no way the theory could account for the values that were so clearly embodied in the practice.

Background: psychoanalysts on religion

This was because psychoanalysis, like logical positivism, had emerged in the philosophical climate of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when, thanks to the overwhelming advances in scientific understanding, which may be summed up by mentioning the names of Marx, Darwin and Helmholtz, positivism and scientific materialism seemed, at any rate to many, to have swept the board. It is seen with great clarity in Freud’s central work on religion,
The Future of an Illusion (1927). In this, the scientific vision, the causal explanations of natural science, were treated as self-evidently superior to any other way of thinking. Indeed, Freud didn’t even trouble to enquire into how more thoughtful religious people conceived their vision. Religion was illusion, he declared with certainty; ‘our science is no illusion’.

I shall spend a bit of time, in this section on the ‘background’, looking at the difficulty psychoanalysis has had in understanding the significance of religion, which is inescapably bound up with the difficulty it has had in finding an adequate philosophical basis from which to understand its own functioning. Freud, who never overtly renounced his early commitment to materialism, said that psychoanalysis had no world-view, no Weltanschauung, different from that of the natural sciences. He defined a Weltanschauung as 'an intellectual construction which solves all the problems of our existence uniformly on the basis of one overriding hypothesis, which, accordingly, leaves no question unanswered and in which everything that interests us finds its fixed place' (Freud 1933,158). In his disarming way, he goes on to acknowledge that science is far too incomplete to provide such a construction, but he adheres to it nevertheless, as the path to reality, and firmly rejects all competitors, including philosophy, as clinging to 'illusion' (160-1).

Such a role for science, however, is manifestly unsatisfactory for the reason I’ve already indicated, namely, that science is by its nature unable to give any basis for non-instrumental values. It is no disparagement of science to say that it can't provide a basis for 'intrinsic' value; it is merely recognizing the nature of what science is. Intrinsic values such as truthfulness, the preciousness of human life, personal integrity, or the capacity to ‘make something meaningful’ of one’s life are of huge importance to us; the loss of them results for many people in severe depression, and their recovery is among the fortunate outcomes of successful psychoanalysis.

You will notice that, etymologically, the word Freud used to describe religion,
illusion, is to do with the ludic, with play. It was taken up strongly by Winnicott, a psychoanalyst who emphasized the importance of playing, and by him it was almost inverted from Freud's usage: in a remarkable phrase, Winnicott spoke of the ‘substance of illusion’ ('that which is allowed to the infant, and which in adult life is inherent in art and religion') (1951, 230) and, with increasing confidence as he grew older, he affirmed the necessity of 'illusion' if we are to live fulfilling lives. He spoke of cultural objects, including religious ones, as existing in a ‘transitional space’ which was of great importance but within which the question of literal truth, and of their basis in reality, could not be raised. 'An essential feature of transitional phenomena and objects is a quality in our attitude when we observe them' (Winnicott 1974, 113). Winnicott came from an exceptionally devout Methodist background, and he always spoke of religion with respect; the importance of his background has been noted by many thinkers, in most detail perhaps by Stephen Parker who pointed out, to take a single example, how strongly Winnicott’s ideas about the ‘use of an object’ parallel the Christian story of the resurrection (Parker 2011, 128).

Winnicott was not a philosopher, but in his discussion of 'illusion' and 'transitionality' he was using a psychoanalytic vocabulary to approach a philosophical question. His use of language is very adroit and we see the difficulty more clearly, perhaps, when one of his commentators attempts to spell out the implications further, continuing to use the psychoanalytic register of vocabulary: this is, says the French psychoanalyst René Roussillon, 'a conception of the mental apparatus which sees it as capable, under certain specific circumstances, of simultaneously hallucinating and perceiving, without becoming confused in the process' (Roussillon 2013, 280). But in fact Winnicott explicitly says that the transitional object is not a hallucination (1951, in Winnicott 1958. 233), and surely that is correct: you may not share their understanding, but small children, and religious believers, are not as a rule hallucinating. What Winnicott is describing is not a pathological state; he is wrestling with an existential fact, much the same existential fact that Martin Heidegger, using a more philosophical vocabulary, had described twenty-five years earlier by saying that we live from the outset in an 'interpreted world'. Heidegger didn’t of course mean a world of psychoanalytic interpretations, but a world that 'makes sense' to us (including, sometimes, bewildering or frightening senses).

Heidegger was arguing against the sort of philosophical view that says we encounter a world of ‘sense data’ that we then construct into our familiar world of trees and people and buildings. He is saying, on the contrary, that from the outset – 'primordially' – we always encounter meaning. I cannot live, said Heidegger, in the bare 'universe' described by physics and the natural sciences, and I deceive myself if I pretend that I do. (For a good brief introduction to Heidegger's thought, see Wrathall 2005.)

Heidegger was acutely aware of the problem for human values of the immense explanatory power of science. It’s one of the damaging ironies of philosophical history that, more or less as Heidegger was developing his mature thought in Freiburg in the 1920s, in Austria the ‘Vienna Circle’ of Moritz Schlick, Rudolf Carnap and others, basing themselves on Wittgenstein’s early writings, were declaring their allegiance to ‘The Scientific Concept of the World’ – to quote the title of their founding manifesto. With the rise of Nazism, in which Heidegger disgraced himself (Safranski 1998), this was an intensely emotional time in the German-speaking world, and any possibility of dialogue between the Heideggerians and the logical positivists in Vienna foundered in mutual dislike and contempt. (Critchley 2001 gives a vivid account.) Most of the Vienna Circle were Jews and, like Freud, most of them left Austria after the Anschluss, going usually to English-speaking countries, and the resolute prejudice of Anglo-American philosophy against ‘continental philosophy’, most of it deriving at only one or two removes from Heidegger, dates from this time. This prejudice has been an impoverishment to both traditions. A minor example was what I have just described: by the 1960s even the names of the major continental philosophers were rarely spoken in British philosophy departments, or were spoken with such rolled eyes and obvious disdain that it seemed self-evident they were not going to be worth exploring. That’s how prejudice is perpetuated!

Melanie Klein, with her notion of ‘unconscious phantasy’ which allows the world, by projection, to be found meaningful, spoke of phantasy in ways similar to, and perhaps prefiguring, Winnicott’s account of illusion. Klein and Winnicott, at any rate in British psychoanalysis, were the two most fertile thinkers in the years around, and the decades immediately following, Freud’s death. But essentially, for both of them, lacking the philosophical reference points that would enable them to challenge the primacy of the natural science view, they could only work with an implicit world-view that was ultimately of a dead ‘objective’ material world onto which ‘subjective’ projections – ‘illusions’, ‘phantasies’ – were then painted or imposed. The nature of subjectivity itself was also a conundrum to the vision of materialism, as to be an ‘I’ is inexplicable by the thorough-going materialist. (Very probably it always will be. See for example McGinn 1995.) Winnicott’s achievement, in escaping the limitations of Freud’s thinking without ever directly confronting the fundamental inadequacy of his philosophy, is very remarkable: it was absolutely necessary, but in a sense, philosophically, it didn't have a leg to stand on.

But although in its practice psychoanalysis struggled to evade, and was often compelled to ignore, the positivist assumptions of the scientific vision, in its fundamental theory it had nowhere else to go; and for several decades the idealization of Freud contributed to its retention of that vision, and made it frightening for psychoanalysts to be seen to depart from it. Wilfred Bion, when he developed his notion of O in the middle 1960s, was directly influenced by mystical thinkers like Meister Eckhart and St John of the Cross, and by the Bhagavad Gita, but felt he had to conceal the fact (Bléandonu 1994). He developed this concept late in his career, following his ‘epistemological phase’, and it denotes, he writes, ‘the ultimate reality represented by terms such as ultimate reality, absolute truth, the godhead, the infinite, the thing-in-itself. O does not fall in the domain of knowledge or learning save incidentally; it can be “become”, but it cannot be “known”’ (1970, 26). It can, however, he said, ‘evolve… to a point where it can be known, through knowledge gained by experience’ (26). It is related to by F, an 'act of faith’. Very differently from a transitionality about which the question of truth must not be raised, O is undoubtedly real in Bion’s account – indeed it is ‘ultimate reality’ – but it cannot be known.

Bion's O, as the above quotations may serve to remind us, is a confusing concept, and I am not sure that it tells us much more than the (important) fact that psychological truths can never be fully put into words, from which it follows that psychoanalytic interpretations never give us a final truth. This is a fact about psychological truth that religious mystics (though not, alas, religious dogmatists) have always known, and which the Buddha always emphasized – though not more so than Meister Eckhart, Ramakrishna, Thomas Merton or Raimon Panikkar, to name a few mystics or mystical thinkers almost at random. The famous Buddhist image of 'teachings' as merely a raft to cross a river, to be discarded when they cease to be useful, is a popular expression of this truth. Bion's discussion of O, however, became complicated and it has divided his commentators. Edna O'Shaughnessy (2005) spoke of his 'mixing and blurring' of different categories of discourse. David Taylor (2011) suggested that Bion was in danger of idealizing unknowability. Rudi Vermote (2011), however, argued to the contrary that O valuably names an undifferentiated psychic realm beyond the 'caesura' that bounds the use of our ordinary capacity for understanding.

From the 1970s onward, the philosophical climate of psychoanalysis began to alter, no doubt influenced by the postmodernism of the wider culture and the increasing mistrust of authoritarian attitudes. The American psychoanalyst William Meissner, who was also a Jesuit priest, remains one of the most lucid and well-informed of the psychoanalytic thinkers to have discussed religion. In 1984, his
The Psychology of Religious Experience built very directly on Winnicott’s theories of illusion; he said that religion is an ‘illusion’, which can be immensely enriching and help greatly in promoting integrity and wisdom, the fruits, according to Erikson, of a fulfilled life. But the word illusion, with its implication of unreality and untruth, was clearly inadequate to the important role Meissner was asking it to occupy. Towards the end of his book, Meissner attempted to give it more gravitas by speaking of faith as validated by the 'supernatural’, a word that can have no meaning to a positivistic scientist or to an analytic philosopher.

When I first read Meissner, I recoiled when I arrived at the word ‘supernatural’. I now respect him for his courage in holding on to it. Not that I think it’s satisfactory as it stands. But what he was courageously affirming was that in order to speak seriously of religion, we have to go beyond the vision of materialism; an alternative vision was lacking and so there was no proper vocabulary, and in its absence the issues could not be adequately addressed. The word ‘supernatural’ suggests an invisible higher realm of reality, so to speak; it appears to point to a 'spiritual world’, distinct from the natural one, in which most of us no longer believe; it has become a metaphor that we are no longer able to cash. Nevertheless, it served importantly as a reminder that the
Weltanschauung of the natural sciences was not adequate to capture what religion is about.

Emmanuel Levinas

So much for an attempt to sketch briefly some of the psychoanalytic background and the philosophical difficulties to which, until at least the 1980s, it gave rise.
[2] My own attempts to write about religion and values date from the 1990s, and were ham-strung too by the wish to remain within the vision of scientific positivism. I had lost touch with the world of philosophy and was unaware that, already back in the 1960s and indeed ever since the 1930s, a philosopher was writing in France, whose name was never spoken in Edinburgh University’s philosophy department, who had seen precisely these problems and had addressed them directly.

This man was Emmanuel Lévinas.
[3] A Lithuanian Jew, born in 1906, he had studied with Husserl and Heidegger in Freiburg, and was one of the first philosophers to introduce Heidegger’s thought into France. He was also influenced by Martin Buber. He was fortunate enough during the war to be arrested as a French army officer, and not as a Jew, and he spent the war in a labour camp in Germany. His wife and daughter survived in France, protected by Christian nuns. His Lithuanian family were less fortunate and many of them died in the Holocaust (Bergo 2014; Malka 1989).

A man with such a history was not likely to be impressed with an argument that values were 'illusions' or were merely a matter of personal taste. He took responsibility as his central issue, and his writings, which are sometimes extremely difficult but always remarkably penetrating, return again and again to the notion of responsibility. One way to approach him is to say that he develops Martin Buber’s brilliant and simple insight (Buber 1970) that we encounter the world in two modes, that of the second person, I/Thou or I/You, and that of the third person, I/It. (Using a more psychoanalytic language, we might say that we encounter others in two very different modes, as ‘objects’ and as ‘subjects’. I have discussed some of the many implications of this difference at greater length in Black 2011).

Around the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, there were many German thinkers who were acutely aware of the problem posed for values by the apparent triumph of natural science as giving us our fundamental model for the form knowledge should take. Nietzsche, Max Weber and Martin Buber are some of the most conspicuous examples. The proclamation by the madman, in Nietzsche's famous fable, that God is dead but the news has not yet reached the ears of men (Nietzsche 1974, 181-2), was a warning that the enormous implications of the loss of religion were still almost impossible to take in. 'Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon?' Nietzsche was (in his less manic moments) appalled because he felt that the 'death of God' implied the loss of all ground for meaning and value, and there could now be no constraint on the boundless cruelty, violence and despair of which humanity is capable. One might say he foresaw many aspects of the 20th century. (Freud, an admirer of Nietzsche, was slower to recognize the power of human destructiveness; true to his philosophy, he finally did so by way of the pseudo-biological theory of the death drive (Black 2001). )

Buber’s I and Thou was an attempt to move away from this domination by the vision of science. He recognised that we encounter the world in two quite different modes, which he called I/It (essentially the objective, third-person view of science) and I/You, in which we meet another in the second person, as a subject. Buber's account of the encounter of I with You, or ‘Thou’, was rather romantic, and emphasized the wonder of the experience. When the other is seen as You, said Buber, he ‘fills the firmament’ (1970, 59).

Levinas, adopting and adapting this notion, converted it from Buber's rather poetic picture into a graver and more purely ethical colour-register: when I behold You, or, in Lévinas’s language, when I see the ‘face of the other’, I realize the force of the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’. I become aware of my responsibility: ‘in its expression, in its mortality, the face before me summons me,' he wrote '....as if the invisible death that must be faced by the Other… were my business’ (1989, 83). And later: 'There is a paradox in responsibility in that I am obliged without this obligation having begun in me, as though an order slipped into my consciousness like a thief' (1998, 13).

‘The face of the other’ is a technical term in Levinas’s philosophy, meaning not exactly the literal face but also the human reality of the other; the Other (often given a capital letter) ‘does not unpack himself as an ensemble of qualities making up an image; the face of the Other destroys at every moment, and exceeds, the plastic image that he leaves me with’ (quoted Malka 1989, 22, author’s translation); to perceive the ‘face’ of the Other brings with it an inescapable awareness of my responsibility towards him. Levinas resorts sometimes to poetic language to emphasise the power and weight of obligation. The Other compels respect; ‘he reveals himself in his mastery’; he is (differently from Buber’s Thou) not a
Toi but a Vous. At the same time he is an orphan, a proletarian, a pauper. The power of the awareness of responsibility, which comes with such unarguable force that it seems like a command coming from outside – Levinas describes it as an ‘epiphany’ – transcends my ordinary vision, the world of Buber’s I/It, or the world of natural science, in which I might see the literal face of the other and shrug my shoulders; in the world of I/It, or the world of natural science, I might think the other is nothing to do with me; I might see nothing wrong with murder or genocide.

This notion of the ‘face of the other’, which evokes in me the awareness of my responsibility, is very remarkable. It is not a mythological notion, like the gods or demons of a religion, but nor is it an abstraction like the concepts of philosophy. It is a notion that derives directly from felt experience, not from theory, and theoretical ideas are not allowed to intrude, to criticize, diminish, or ‘interpret’ it. (For the phenomenologist – and both Heidegger and Levinas can be included under that heading – experience is the ultimate authority, and it trumps theory, which can only be reductive and abstract.) The face of the Other, therefore, is a notion that carries both emotion and obligation, and it can occupy the space that is left blank in any attempt to derive values from empirical facts, and that is also left blank even when one speaks, as philosophers have increasingly found a need to do in the last twenty years, of ‘objective values’. Even to speak of values as objective, though it’s a big step forward from the positivist view of them as mere expressions of feeling or personal taste, is powerless before the person (the depressed person, perhaps, or the cynic) who would say ‘So what? So what if this value is objective? I don’t care about it’. What ethics needs, and what it continually fails to come up with, is a bridge between objective realities, of whatever sort, and my subjective experience of obligation, and this link Levinas’s concept embodies.

This foundational ethical experience – and Levinas, true to his phenomenological background, gives no further explanation of it – transcends the world of the natural sciences; it transcends the world that philosophers (including and in particular Heidegger) have called ‘Being’, the world in which ontology has primacy. For Levinas, it is this experience that calls me forth to become someone who ‘exists’, who stands forth (the etymological meaning of ‘exist’) from the field of anonymous causal forces that he terms the ‘il y a’, the mere ‘there is’. It is this experience that calls me forth into fully human being. To be ‘human’, in Levinas’s language, is not a biological given, like being a cat or a butterfly, but an achievement.

Levinas’s thought is extremely powerful, and I shall not convey that by this meager paraphrase. But I think his recognition of the ‘transcendence’ of ethical obligation, and its absolute difference from the world recognizable by natural science, is what lurks too in Meissner’s notion of the supernatural. Meissner was recognising, though he didn’t have the words for it, something altogether other, altogether more compelling, than the world of empirical fact, and this is what Levinas is able to describe. What in Meissner could only be assertion, made defiantly and courageously in the teeth of the philosophical weather in which he and his psychoanalytic colleagues were working, could in Levinas be a much calmer and more developed statement, highly individual but nevertheless supported in the generous climate of thought made possible by Heideggerian phenomenology.

Developments in analytic philosophy – objectivity of values

In recent decades, in the world of Anglo-American philosophy, the inadequacy of analytic philosophy has increasingly begun to be recognized, although it probably remains the predominant mode. (John Cottingham
[4] has written about this (see for example Cottingham 2010).) But the need to see values as objective, at least in part, and not merely as expressions of personal preference or emotion, has been recognized now by many Anglo-American philosophers, including Charles Taylor, Donald Davidson, Thomas Nagel and Ronald Dworkin. All these are of great interest, but I shall concentrate here on Dworkin. He is a particularly significant figure, as he arrived at but didn’t set out from an interest in religion. Born in New England in 1931, he held chairs in the philosophy of law and jurisprudence first at both Yale and Oxford, and later at New York University and University College London; he devoted most of his immensely energetic professional life to studying the philosophy of law; writing as a public intellectual in the New York Review of Books, he also made a notable contribution to understanding the biases and errors in many decisions of the American Supreme Court. He died in 2013 and it was only towards the end of his life that his insistent enquiry into the basis of law, and then into the basis of ethics, brought him to recognize that he had arrived in territory traditionally regarded as religious. His own cast of mind was rational and scientific, and he was not interested in the idea of a personal God, but he realized, like Levinas, that ethical values, if they are to be finally compelling, must ultimately have their own authority; they can’t be discovered in the world described by physics or evolutionary biology, in which values can only ever be instrumental. 'What matters most fundamentally to the drive to live well', he wrote, is (not belief in a God but) 'the conviction that there is, independently and objectively, a right way to live' (2013, 153).

Dworkin gives a powerful and simple example. He speaks of the need, that many people have as they approach death, to feel that they haven’t wasted their life. They don’t wish to be fobbed off with consolations. This question has great importance to them, and the issues involved have an unmistakable reality. Dworkin spoke of this as ultimately a 'religious' question, though not one that required theistic religion, and he coined the phrase ‘religious atheism’ to describe his position. He is of particular interest, I think, because 'religion' and 'belief in a god' are almost synonymous in the minds of many people in the west; starting from the issues rather than from the convictions, Dworkin shows that belief in a god is not the heart of the matter. But the 'religious atheist', as described by Dworkin, is very much closer to other sorts of religious people, including theists, than to doctrinaire atheists such as Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett. Dworkin doesn't mention Buddhism, but in Buddhism we already have a well-established example of a religion that is essentially non-theistic. There seems a glimpse in Dworkin's thought of a way forward for religion, which so often seems to be concerned with attempting to live in a past of ideas to which we can only return by renouncing some part of what science has taught us.

Of course, a psychoanalyst, confronted with a person who wonders if he has wasted his life, would have many questions to ask – is the person depressed? etc – but I doubt if any psychoanalyst would want to dismiss the question as meaningless, or would think it made no difference whether the person had contributed greatly to human life or had spent his time as the Commandant of Treblinka (Sereny 1974). Dworkin, like Levinas, takes us directly to the territory of intrinsic value; we all immediately recognise the terrain, and it is ironic that the prevailing philosophy of our time gives us no help in getting a purchase on it. And despite encouraging recent developments, particularly in the US, I think no Anglo-American thinker, not even Dworkin, is yet able to offer such a radical and simple picture as Levinas, or is able to give an account of the gap between ‘ought’ and ‘is’ that David Hume famously declared to be unbridgeable. And yet, unless we can move on from Hume, we are unable to do what Levinas does, to look positivism in the eye and declare the equal reality, or indeed the primacy, of ethics.

The function of religion

Let me come back now from this wide excursus to the rather simple question about religion with which we began. If you have followed all this, you may be tempted to agree with much of it. OK, you might say, so responsibility arises when I perceive the ‘face of the other’, a technical term which includes such intangible qualities in the other as his vulnerability and his humanity; and at the same time I may perceive what we might call the importance of human life, or the beauty of justice, or kindness, or sincerity – Dworkin's ‘objective values’ – and all this may then influence my conduct. Why isn’t that enough? Why bring in something else, called ‘religion’, that results in so much complication?

This is our key question in this paper. Why isn’t it enough just to have whatever values one has, as a result of one’s personal epiphanic moments and one’s personal history of human relations? How can there be a role for religion in the eyes of an intelligent person who can see, like T.H. Huxley or Freud, how many of the ingredients of religion can be used by believers to provide false or infantile consolation, or to generate yet another set of motives for human conflict? Why can’t we just stay with our values, recognizing now that they are ‘objective’ or even ‘transcendent’, and put all religious baggage out of mind?

I will suggest two considerations that are relevant to this question, one empirical, one more speculative. The empirical one is that, where we find a strong commitment to values in someone apparently non-religious, we may often find that the person carries what psychoanalysts call an ‘internal object’, a memory or picture of someone, perhaps a parent or admired teacher, who was religious; many psychoanalysts, for example, are only one or two generations away from religious families, as was Freud himself. Raymond Tallis has recently remarked (2012, 215) that he would rather live in godless Stockholm than devout Baghdad. But it is not accidental that the populations of attractive socialist societies, like that of Sweden, are only one or two generations away from populations powerfully influenced by Protestant Christianity. If so, even if the individual may sincerely believe that he or she is not affected by religious commitment, they may be quite unaware of the unconscious identifications and loyalties that give such force to their commitment to values or high standards. – This, as I say, is an empirical matter, and could be the object of research. It might indicate that Levinas’ ‘epiphanies’, independent of personal biography though they seem, may also have the sort of unconscious developmental background that psychoanalysis would claim supports all our capacities for emotional experience.

The more speculative consideration is the one encapsulated in my title. We may have moments of epiphany, when we perceive the ‘face of the other’ and experience the compelling sense of transcendent obligation towards him or her that Levinas speaks of; or we may be moved by the vision of the preciousness of human life and the beauty of the universe that Dworkin describes; I believe we do, and that such moments are extremely important. But moments are by definition transient: the I/You is fated, as Buber said very emphatically (1970, 68-9), to pass back again into the I/It, and the Other whom I must not kill becomes the other who is out of sight, and will soon enough be out of mind. How am I to remember my values and continue to be influenced by them, even in non-epiphanic moments, even in moments when my attention is necessarily elsewhere, or when other motives, like fear, may be in the ascendant?

It is to this question that I think the answer may be, irreplaceably, religion, with its teachings, its rituals, and its institutions. Every major religion finds a way to surround its values with stories, with personalities, with moving rituals and ceremonies, with artworks, with music, that have the function of reminding the believer of its foundational values, and creating emotions that affirm the values. Even Buddhism, technically godless, developed its great bodhisattvas such as Avalokiteshvara who embodies compassion and can be worshipped or prayed to; the Buddha Amida or Amitabha, in the Japanese denomination Jodo Shinshu, plays the role of a remarkably Jesus-like figure who brings salvation to his followers by evoking their love and gratitude; in the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna and Vishnu embody two vastly different faces of God, the kindly and the all-powerful – evoking in Arjuna vastly different emotions (I have discussed this at greater length in Black 2011, pp 158-161); in the Catholic Mass, the believer takes the substantial body of the incarnate God into himself, giving fleshly form to St Paul’s metaphor that we are all ‘members’ – limbs – of one another. None of these stories or practices can survive the skeptical scrutiny of natural science, that esteems facts and evidence above all else; they all necessarily depend for their survival on institutions, organized bodies of people who are willing to uphold and affirm them, and to engage in the relevant actions and conversations; and they all make understandable sense if one considers that their function is not to tell the truth about some invisible world with many characteristics of the visible one (what traditionally has been called a ‘supernatural’ world or a ‘spiritual world’), but to affirm central values – values which are in all cases much more similar across the spectrum of religions than their diverse language and imagery, and apparent exclusiveness, might suggest.

I hope it is clear that by ‘affirm’ I do not mean that the religion creates the values; it doesn’t: the values are values because we perceive them to be such, in moments of epiphany such as those Levinas described. (As Meister Eckhart and Ronald Dworkin both point out (and it is Plato's argument in the
Euthyphro), we recognize goodness because we are moved by it when we encounter it; we recognize it directly, we don’t deduce it from some reported statement of God’s will or commandments; on the contrary, we recognize the goodness of God’s commandments, if we do, because we see that they are true to our own perception of goodness.) Nor do I mean by ‘affirm’ merely to affirm our values intellectually. Religions find ways to affirm their values intellectually, but also emotionally and imaginatively, ways that make them alive and memorable to the believer. Very importantly, these stories and practices also make them influential upon children at the early ages when fundamental imaginative attitudes to life are established.

They even influence unbelievers as well. When Philip Larkin, an unbeliever, embarrassed to have strayed into a church, took off his cycle-clips ‘with awkward reverence’, he was recognizing the values embodied in his surroundings. When later, somewhat reluctantly, he tried to spell out the significance of the experience,
he wrote: ‘A serious house on serious earth it is’ (Larkin 1988, 97-8). It was hard for Larkin, with his ingrained depression and cynicism, to make this concession, but he was absolutely right: religion is about seriousness. I might have entitled this paper: ‘religion as the affirmation of seriousness’. That, I suggest, is what religions are ultimately for, for the imprinting on our awareness and our memories of what, in transient moments of acute perception, we recognize to be our most precious values. And if this is right, my initial question might be reworded in a more nuanced way, to read: without religion, or something that is in effect a religion, will a society be able, over generations, to retain a hold on its most important values, as effective motivators in people’s conduct and in society's law-making, in the perception of what makes for a good life, and in what we have learned, after so many centuries of philosophical and religious argument and reflection, to call ‘human rights’?


[1]This paper was initially a panel presentation for a conference on Psychoanalysis and Philosophy at Senate House, University of London, 17/18 October 2014. It has been significantly revised for publication.

[2]I decided on reflection, though with regret, not to follow the suggestion of one of the peer-reviewers of this paper and include clinical material – partly because I didn't find it easy to enlarge the paper without spoiling the clarity of the argument, and partly because I found when I attempted to do so that clinical material inevitably introduced further issues and confusions. So this paper's purpose is solely to make a contribution to theory, at quite a high level of generality.

[3]The acute accent on the e is correct, but he is now sufficiently well-known in the English-speaking world to have been naturalized; I shall refer to him in future as Levinas.

[4]Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Reading, who was also on the panel at the Senate House conference.


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