Posted by: aediculaantinoi | September 20, 2013

Religion and Psychology: There Is A Difference…

As I mentioned the other day in my post about the Esoteric Book Conference, something that gets a bit on my case, and that I’ve heard a few too many times over the past several months, is the lack of distinction between religiosity and psychology. I think I should probably explain myself a bit further here, just to make sure that everyone understands what I mean by that distinction.

Let me start off by saying that I think that the modern endeavor, field of study, career, and practice of psychology is a good thing, and something that I recommend to many people. It is a good and useful thing, and one social and clinical methodology introduced during the last 150 years which can produce legitimate results for the individuals who take part in it. I have used the services of psychological counselors at various points in my life previously, and certainly will do so again if I have major problems, or even if I just have the money to do so on a regular basis with a trusted counselor. It not only makes many people’s lives better, it often outright saves people’s lives, and that’s an extremely useful and important thing. I have many friends who regularly use the services of a psychological or psychiatric counselor, and I have other friends who do this as their line of work/career. All of these are very good things, and I have no problem with them whatsoever.

And, while the good results that some people get in the previously described circumstances often have implications for their spiritual development, at the same time, they’re not the same thing. As with so many different things in life, simply saying “My spirituality/religion is all-embracing,” and then considering one’s psychological pursuits to be one’s spirituality, is just as erroneous and potentially irresponsible in my view as saying the same thing and then assuming that one’s political activism, social hobbies, fetish interests, and choice of television programming is “just as spiritual” as their prayer life, ritual activities, devotional fervor, or other specifically-religious involvements. No, none of those things are bad or wrong, but simply declaring that all of one’s life is spiritual is not the same thing as actually making a diversity of life activities into spiritual activities. But, that’s a point I’ve made multiple times before, and while it applies in the present case, there’s several more pernicious things about “psychology” which can make it a bit more sticky when it comes to religiosity.

First of all is the fact that psychology has a meaning that is independent of its use in modern clinical, mental or social health contexts. The “psych-” bit of “psychology” is exactly the same word as Greek psyche, i.e. “soul.” The modern social science of psychology, while not a “hard science” like biology or chemistry or physics, is nonetheless concerned with a number of scientific and quantifiable matters, even when these are less quantifiable than the subjects of biology, chemistry, and physics. “Soul” is an inherently religious concept, no matter how any given religion defines (or does not define) it, and thus it’s not a matter for clinical and scientific psychology to even discuss or debate, technically, since science at this point has not been able to determine whether or not it exists. Even as Freud defined the psyche as composed of id, ego, and superego, this is still not a universally accepted definition or taxonomy, nor does this particular “psyche” replace or equate to the “soul” in a religious sense.

In religion, however, there are all different types of psychologies that apply to different religious systems–which is to say, there are different ways that different religions (or even schools, sects, or denominations within the same religion) understand and define what the soul is, what parts it might have, and how these relate to the human person and its capacities (including will, rationality, spiritual essence, physicality, animality, ancestral inheritance, anger, energy, and any number of other possibilities above, between, and beyond these!), what the fate of each of these pieces might be after death, and so forth. Thus, psychology–even when not under that specific terminology–is a part of many different religions, whether inherently or implicitly, whether people who are parts of those religions know it or not.

Likewise, anthropology is also a part of most religions–and by that, I mean an understanding of what a human person is, and what their role is in the cosmos in relation to all other orders of the universe and the beings which inhabit it. It is literally an understanding of and classification for “how to contextualize humans,” just as a psychology is “how to understand and classify souls.” And yet, no one ever gets confused and thinks that an anthropology within a religion is the same thing as the social science of anthropology and its study of human origins and development along a variety of lines (physical, cultural, etc.). The same is unfortunately not true of psychology, where the clinical definitions are more often thought to be somewhat interchangeable with spiritual ones at this point, and the spiritual or theological definitions of psychology are not known nor paid heed to at all (unless they are under a different name–many people know the “Triple Soul” of Anderson Feri practice, but they don’t know of that as a “psychology,” which it is!).

Part of the difficulty with this in modern paganism–which it inherits, to some extent, from New Age thinking–is that the theories of Carl Gustav Jung have been so pervasively influential across the board. Don’t get me wrong, I like some of these theories, and they can be useful to some extent in certain cases; but, they should never be misunderstood as theologies when in fact they are and always have been psychology, of the clinical or para-clinical sort, and not as things which were meant to be used as skeleton keys for religious engagement. Joseph Campbell (who I like a great deal, and has been very influential on some of my earlier work) and some others have likewise done a lot to blur the lines–and not in a positive manner, unfortunately–around these matters, substituting clinical psychological theories and schools of thought for an understanding of, for example, the chakras of kundalini yoga…which, itself, could be considered a religious or spiritual psychology, but is not the same as these other sorts of psychology, even when they draw upon spiritual systems for their usage. (And, very most certainly, the “heart chakra,” or Anahata, does not equate to Jungian psychology, as Campbell’s Transformations of Myth Through Time lectures stated!)

Rather than mistaking Jungian psychology for religion, it is best to do what Jung actually did in his psychological theoretical endeavors: he used the images from religion to create tangible metaphors for psychological processes. Freud did this, too–what is Oedipus if not a mythic precedent for a psychological complex he created, which is nothing if not a myth in itself (both in its positive and negative definitions!) in its supposed universality to human childhood developmental experience? It isn’t that people going through the Eleusinian Mysteries were having a psychological experience, it’s that the imagery from the Eleusinian Mysteries, in some cases, can be used as useful metaphors for certain aspects of psychological processes and experiences.

To put this a slightly different way: people going through the Eleusinian Mysteries were not having a psychological experience, they were having a psychic experience (and not in the modern New Age sense of “psychic,” but instead as just a matter of their soul being impacted, shaped, and elevated by an initiatory event). Likewise, they were not studying mythology by being an Eleusinian initiate, they were becoming part of a myth and were having a mythic experience. Mythology is something that one studies or understands; but myth is something one lives and experiences and partakes of as a result of good and effective ritual (or, at least it can be, and far too often isn’t these days…).

Thus, I get a bit weary when I’ve heard certain prominent modern pagans recently say that Greek myth and the rituals which accompany it are in some way “superior” to Celtic myth because there is a psychological content in the Greek material which is lacking in Celtic myth and ritual. First of all, this is simply not true: there is just as much potentially psychological material to be found in the various strands and cultures of Celtic myth as there is in Greek myth. Second of all, no myth or ritual is only valuable insofar as it parallels or mirrors what is known from psychological theory and practice in the modern period–people have gotten along just as well without that for thousands of years, thanks very much, and while that doesn’t argue that it isn’t useful now, it does mean that what is there has not been valued for its closeness to psychological theory in eras past. Third of all, what there is in Greek, Celtic, and many other mythic and ritual cultures and complexes is psychic, not psychological, and as a result it needs to be evaluated–if psychologically at all–along the lines of religious or spiritual psychological methodologies, not clinical and scientific ones.

And finally, while partaking of rituals and entering into myths is something that can have implications for psychological realities and both positive integrations and negative dissolutions of one’s own psychological status, this is not their primary function; ritual and myth–not unlike most religious and spiritual practices and realities–are always more about the gods, the universe, and the many other beings in it, and not the individual human’s ability to apprehend all of it or to “feel better” about themselves amidst all of it, though it often does (and even should) have that effect in many cases. We all know about cases where it does not and has not, and in fact has impeded people’s ability to deal with the world in a useful or productive way…which is why religion and spiritual experience are not “safe” in many cases. Clinical psychology is almost always safe for anyone and everyone to participate in; religion and spirituality comes in safe and safer varieties, but none of it is guaranteed to be 100% safe, or even 60% safe in some cases.

If all of this is understood and kept well in mind, there should be no problem in discussing clinical psychology as a good and useful thing, religious psychologies as potentially applicable in given situations, and on occasion, even some degree of crossover between them in certain narrow instances. But, one should never mistake what is going on in one for what is going on in the other, or even to think that what is going on in one (usually the religious one) can be discussed within or is even intelligible at all to the other (usually the clinical one). The tendency has been for the clinical types to be critical of the spiritual types, and to even suggest that what goes on in religious contexts is unreal or delusional, when in fact some of the methodologies under which clinical psychology operates are just as mythic, untested, and are not 100% applicable across the board to all of humanity as they often imagine themselves to be.

Clinical psychology and religiosity can play very well together, as long as one understands which is which and doesn’t confuse them, even when they use similar or the same terminology.


  1. From what I am gathering from this, I agree. Jung always seemed cautious about clarifying that psychological constructs were not meant to be considered the same as spiritual experiences. I think we can look to myth and esoteric teachings and find psychological correlates inside ourselves (the archetypes).

    I see this being like how I might have internalized my mother’s voice and have to contend with that to become more independent—but ultimately that is one of my inner voices making a sound like my mother, it is not actually my mother. Maybe at one point it came from my mother, but if I am going to become an autonomous adult, I need to take ownership of it. When I take ownership of it, I find I can have a better relationship with my actual, living mother, because I am reacting less to the stereotyped version of her living inside of me. That is analogous to how I see the relationship between psychology and spiritual work. Sometimes we need to get our inner houses in order to actually comprehend what is happening in the work or relationships with the gods.

    • Yes–and, the example you’ve given is a good metaphor for how spiritual discernment can/should work, too, in terms of determining whether or not the “voices” one is hearing are actual gods, or are the sock-puppets of our own psyche we’ve created or re-created within ourselves for various reasons, etc. (It’s apparently a kind of discernment most Christians aren’t very good at either: the “still small voice inside” is not necessarily the Holy Spirit, and yet there’s a lot of people running around out there thinking it’s not even the Holy Spirit, but God!)

  2. Not a whole lot to add here, but just wanted to say I really enjoyed this, and I definitely agree. I think both approaches can co-exist and each have their uses and relevance, without one having to overwrite the other.

  3. Couple thoughts. One, the theory of the Triple Soul, as taught and described by Victor and Cora Anderson, is decidedly not a psychological model. The souls are clearly described as metaphysical, vital bodies that are made of subtle forces and are the means by which we commune and communicate with divine beings, spirits, and the Otherworld generally. The mapping of them onto a psychological model, where they are dealt with as personality parts, is an innovation of later practitioners.

    And two, there are people who think the Celtic mythologies are devoid of psychological dynamics? The mind boggles. They can’t have read them very carefully. Or at all, really. I’m amazed to hear this!

    • That’s what I’m saying: the Triple Soul is a “psychology” (an understanding of the soul) in the true and original sense of “psychology” outside of the clinical/scientific context, with a metaphysical reality and a functioning that only makes sense in a spiritual/religious context. Like so many spiritual psychologies, it then got correlated to (quasi-) clinical psychological theories later on, just as the chakras did, etc.

      And, on the latter question: yes, unfortunately, which is about as head-desk-y as one can get (apart from people trying to convince me that the Irish language doesn’t exist) in my line of work. I suspect the person who said this only thought that “Celtic myth” consists of Green Men, Triple Goddesses, and perhaps the Oak and Holly Kings, and wasn’t aware of, you know, actual Irish, Welsh, or other narrative myths of Celtic cultures.

  4. Thank you for this. My paid job is in counseling, specifically with people who have suffered pervasive trauma on multiple levels, and I know that my work in this world is to sit with people and look at some very hard things, to facilitate mourning and mending and celebrating. So on the one hand my work is very spiritually meaningful for me, as in being my path — yet I don’t mistake the work I do in the room as spiritual work in and of itself. It’s a tricky tension to hold.

    I know a lot of Pagans who greatly enjoy and get benefit from their ritual work, but who talk about it in such a personal psychologized way. I admit that for a long time I struggled to articulate my own experiences in a way that didn’t make it sound like I was just doing a very fanciful version of play therapy. I wonder if this is because people are concerned about assigning meaning to anything outside of their own experience? (Of course, I also know there are plenty of people who identify as Pagan but don’t believe in the Gods, so there’s that as well.) Does it seem more acceptable or safer to try and fit spirituality into a generally accepted discourse? I know that moving away from that has both deepened my experiences and also made me feel “weirder.”

    • Yes, and thank you for bringing that up…

      Ritual is not externalized psycho-drama, and the ways in which many pagans seem to think it is demonstrates how very different polytheism and animism are from the types of religion that many pagans are doing today and calling “paganism” and even “polytheism.”

      I think your insight about assigning meaning outside of one’s own experience is a very good one. I also suspect that there is a kind of solipsism that underlies a lot of modern pagans’ sense of religiosity (which is almost exactly what you’ve already said, only in slightly different words with different emphasis): “I can’t prove that anyone oustide of my head exists, or that these ‘gods’ exist outside of my head at all, therefore, why not low-ball my ‘theology’ and call it good so as not to look foolish around the atheists (if they happen to actually exist outside my head, either),” seems to be the way a lot of pagans want to play all of this. They’ll lose “cool points” or “intelligence points” in discussions with atheists if they even suggest that there is something external to their own psychological processes that might exists that looks like a deity, etc.

      Anyway, points very well taken! Thanks for mentioning this! (I had meant to write a bit more about it, but anyway…)

  5. […] of anthropology (and by “anthropology” I mean something that is discussed a bit further in another recent post I did). I’ll have to unpack a bit of terminology first, though, before I address Peter […]

  6. […] the validation of psychology needs to be added to ancient myth or our religious concerns generally, as I’ve written recently. But, the other points before this need to be teased out a bit […]

  7. I am ending tonight’s readathon here, with a smile and gratitude. I have read the comments to several of the posts that I’ve read tonight so as to see the ongoing discussion of different topics you have brought up and have been delighted by the discussion that occurred and the thoughtfulness in both the replies and your responses.

    I close this electronic window, but know that my thoughts will be continuing in an ongoing internal dialog of further understanding over some of the subjects I’ve read tonight. I strive for awareness and understanding in all that I encounter, even though that can mean I am sometimes misunderstood. To understand is a goal, I realize that. The journey in reaching such a destination is a powerful experience of….self awareness perhaps?

    I do not use the words that you or others who respond here use. Frankly, I don’t think I am well enough educated on the subjects to try to. That doesn’t lesson what I am taking away though, and I am glad for it.

    It’s raining here. Such an intoxicating serenade to the senses, a sort of quiet lullaby to gently guide the thought processes forward. I feel very gifted tonight (or this early morning as it now is). Makes me just want to squeel with joy when the universe smiles down upon me so. Heh, how does it feel to make another’s mind dance? I hope you have a rejuvenating sleep.🙂

    • Unfortunately, my sleep last night was not very plentiful, nor very restful…but, as that’s been par for the course on Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights for the past few weeks since the quarter started, I suppose it’s not unexpected, at least.

      I always hope that whatever it is I end up writing about here, anyone who reads it can potentially understand it. Even though you may not have encountered the subjects before, it’s always my hope–both in writing things here, as well as in my day-job as an educator–that the human capacity for understanding, empathy, imagination, and intelligence will enable those coming into contact with these matters for the first time will not have any difficulty in simply taking in the information. If you’re able to do that, then that’s all that is necessary; and what you do with it then is entirely up to you!

      I’m glad you’re enoying reading, and I hope you’re having an excellent day whenever you read this!

  8. […] the difference between an altar and a shrine (and not just in this chapter). His concept of ritual fallaciously conflates religion and psychology (or at least really seems to), and given all that, I just gave up, and I’ve decided that if I […]

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