Psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s Theory of Religion

Carl G. Jung (1875-1961) was a Swiss psychologist and psychoanalyst considered by many to be one of the eminent scholars of the twentieth century. His ideas influenced several academic disciplines over the decades, especially mythology and religion. This essay reviews Jung’s psychoanalytic insights, views on religion, and his controversial hypothesis of synchronicity that inspires many within religious circles.

Personality and Archetypes 

We will come to acknowledge how Jung’s conception of the personality and archetypes are relevant to his theory of religion. Jung hypothesized three psychic levels in the human personality: the ego, personal unconscious, and collective unconscious. The ego is the conscious mind counting all the memories, thoughts, and emotions of which an individual is aware. The personal unconscious, closely connected to the ego, is the locus of temporally forgotten information and repressed memories. Jung says the personal unconscious “contains lost memories, painful ideas that are repressed (i.e., forgotten on purpose), subliminal perceptions, by which are meant sense-perceptions that were not strong enough to reach consciousness, and finally, contents that are not yet ripe for consciousness” (1). 

But Jung’s most well-known and controversial theory is that of the collective unconscious consisting of instincts and archetypes, or primordial images, patterns of behavior, signs, and symbols, that are inherited from humanity’s ancestors. The collective unconscious is the part of the unconscious mind we are unaware of but manifests universal themes running through all human life; according to Jung,

“My thesis, then, is as follows: In addition to our immediate consciousness, which is of a thoroughly personal nature and which we believe to be the only empirical psyche (even if we tack on the personal unconscious as an appendix), there exists a second psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals. This collective unconscious does not develop individually but is inherited” (2).

As universal, the collective unconscious is identical in all people regardless of their culture, race, era, and geographical location. The collective unconscious “is not individual but universal; in contrast to the personal psyche, it has contents and modes of behavior that are more or less the same everywhere and in all individuals” (3).

The collective unconscious influences the individual’s experiences and behaviors. Love, for example, is a sign of the collective unconscious, as is the immediate recognition of certain symbols and the meanings of certain myths. A good example of the collective unconscious is near-death experiences. Many people of various races, cultures, and backgrounds who have near-death experiences seem to experience similar recollections when they are brought back from a close encounter with death (4). For instance, they tell of leaving and seeing their bodies, seeing events surrounding their bodies, a bright light, religious figures, and/or dead relatives.

Jung populates the collective unconscious with archetypes, namely pre-existent, shared, universal mental images and symbols that emerge in dreams, art, literature, and religion. Jung writes that the “content of the collective unconscious is made up essentially of archetypes.” These archetypes are inherited: “This collective unconscious does not develop individually but is inherited. It consists of pre-existent forms, the archetypes, which can only become conscious secondarily and which give definite form to certain psychic contents” (5).

Archetypes exist in the psyche and are always present and everywhere. For instance, a newborn baby, contrary to what others (like the philosopher John Locke (1632-1704)) hypothesized, rather than being born a blank slate, is born to perceive certain archetypal patterns and symbols. Jung conceptualized numerous archetypes saying that “there are as many archetypes as there are typical situations in life”, but stressed the importance of the Persona, Shadow, and Anima/Animus, and Self.

The Persona (related to the word ‘person’ and ‘personality’) is the “mask” an individual puts on to present him/herself to the world, such as in public and society, and that conceals the real self. The Persona can be manipulative in one offering a false impression to influence others. The Anima (personified as a witch, young girl, or earth mother) is the unconscious feminine side of a man and the psychological qualities of his unconscious mind that emerges in his infatuation, idealization, and/or fascination with women. The woman, moreover, has her version called the Animus (personified as a wise old man or sorcerer) which consists of unconscious masculine tributes and potentials. Whenever there is an extreme love or fantasy the Anima or Animus becomes active in the person. The Shadow (symbolized in the dragon snake, monsters, and demons) is the dark, hidden, and repressed side of a person’s personality that may emerge in dreams. The Shadow reaches far back into humanity’s ancestors and is the place where the evil that humans are capable of is stored, although the Shadow is itself neither good nor bad.

Religion 

Jung is considered more favorable to religion than some other depth psychologists, such as Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), although he did not conform with accepted notions in traditional religion. This also does not mean Jung is an ally to any traditional meaning of religion, despite some of his ideas being considered favorable to mysticism.  

Religion, to Jung, is “a peculiar attitude of the human mind” consisting of a “careful consideration and observation of certain dynamic factors, understood to be powers, spirits, gods, laws, ideas, ideals or whatever name man has given to such factors…” (6). Jung emphasizes the role of the mind in religion and that religious belief and dogma correspond to archetypes in the collective unconscious. Religion (and mythology) becomes the means through which archetypes can be expressed.

Jung refers to a “God-image”. The God-image is not itself God in the traditional theistic sense, but a symbol through which the God archetype appears in the unconscious as, for example, Yahweh or Krishna. The God-image is closely related to the notion of wholeness that all people seek, which itself is related to the archetype of the Self (symbolized as the circle, cross, and mandala). The Self is at the center of the personality and the basis for mythological and religious motifs. The Self has been projected throughout history onto gods. It has enabled humans to fashion gods with anthropomorphic attributes to fulfill humanity’s spiritual needs. The Self exists in the mind whether or not the existence of God is an objective fact external to an individual’s mind.

The archetypal imagination is behind the religious impulse. It is a source of imagistic creativity and spiritual development, an insight Jung considered to be positive in adult development. People have the desire for explanations of forces beyond themselves because of an intense yearning that is just as innate as the desire for food or sex. This desire manifests in the religions of the world and answers the person’s search for ultimate values” When the spiritual desires of people are not properly satisfied, their lives are impacted negatively and come to feel empty and senseless. The “religious outlook” has value in Jung’s eyes which is evident in his clinical practice,

“During the past thirty years, people from all the civilized countries of the earth have consulted me. Among all my patients in the second half of life-that is to say, over thirty-five- there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life. It is safe to say that every one of them feel ill because he had lost that which the living religions of every age have given to their followers, and none of them has been really healed who did not regain his religious outlook” (7).

Jung does not conceive of God in the traditional sense, but rather as “powers” deeply personal to an individual’s life and that exist beyond the conscious (8). An individual can attain wholeness by looking beyond conscious awareness and become in tune with these powers. Jung’s clients attained this wholeness through being in tune with the “powers” by giving a religious interpretation to the symbolism of their dreams: “This archetype of wholeness tends to produce in the mind, through dreams, a symbolism that has across the ages been associated with God” (9).

The question arises as to whether or not God, in Jung’s view, is limited to the mind (unconscious) or exists outside of the person. According to Jung, “We cannot tell whether God and the unconscious are two different entities” (10). What is certain, however, is that God is an archetype in the collective unconscious. But knowing that archetypes are inherited and trace back to humanity’s ancestors seems to suggest that the God idea is passed on through time and generations. Jung does, however, write that “Nothing positive or negative has been asserted about the possible existence of God”, which appears to leave the question of God’s existence open (11).

Synchronicity

One of Jung’s interesting, yet controversial ideas, is his notion of synchronicity. Synchronicity refers to two events that are not linked causally or teleologically but are meaningfully related. It is what one might typically refer to as a coincidence. An example would be a person dreaming about the death of a loved one only to then find out the following morning that their loved one did, in fact, die. Jung offered an example,

“On April 1, 1949, I made a note in the morning of an inscription containing a figure that was half man and half fish. There was fish for lunch. Somebody mentioned the custom of making an April fish. In the afternoon, a former patient of mine, whom I had not seen for months, showed me some impressive pictures of fish. In the evening, I was shown a piece of embroidery with sea monsters and fishes in it. The next morning, I saw a former patient, who was visiting me for the first time in ten years. She had dreamed of a large fish the night before” (12).

Most would likely consider these to be coincidences, but Jung went deeper and thought these events to suggest people are connected through the collective unconscious. Synchronistic events point to a transcendent continuum underlying both matter and psyche. Such events are considered transcendent because they are beyond all possible experience and knowledge. This is where Jung’s insights have inspired mysticism and spiritual metaphysics. Some view synchronicity as indicating a reality that transcends the ordinary empirical world and in which people can partake.

Dan Hocoy argues that the popularity of synchronicity is partially rooted in the existential desire for meaning found in human nature: “For the individual, a belief in synchronicity helps address the emotional need for permanent and absolute meaning in one’s experiences and life in general” (13). As Jungian scholar Roderick Main states, “For Jung and for many since, synchronicity has provided a resource for attempting to re-enchant the increasingly disenchanted modern world” (14).

Synchronicity is attractive to many who think it assists in overcoming existential fears, such as that life is meaningless because of its finitude and perceived arbitrary nature. It suggests that notions of life’s meaninglessness are unwarranted because synchronistic events point to “a higher order in which our experiences have lasting and objective significance… Synchronicity fulfills a deep existential void of uncertainty and potential meaninglessness, providing emotional comfort and assurance” (15). The human desire for meaning is a reason some are motivated to believe in synchronicity.

Particularly alluring are not minor synchronicities that can be dismissed as coincidental, but those of profound depth and intensity too compelling to ignore or not share with others. This latter type is often understood as or believed to be supernatural, metaphysical, or spiritual. Members of the New Age Movement attribute meaningful coincidences to synchronicity rather than to chance. Synchronistic events point to a transcendent reality beyond the material world and allow for the New Ager to experience a connection to transcendence.

Criticism of Jung

Jung has, according to historian and philosopher Wouter J. Hanegraaff, “sacralized psychology” by filling it with the “contents of esoteric speculation”: “The result was a body of theories which enabled people to talk about God while really meaning their own psyche, and about their own psyche while really meaning the divine. If the psyche is ‘mind’, and God is ‘mind’ as well, then to discuss one must mean to discuss the other” (16).  

Because of this inclination, many scholars came to perceive Jung with suspicion and as a theorist more associated with superstition and popular mysticism than with science. As Jung conceded, especially after his break away from Freud, “all my friends and acquaintances dropped away. My book was declared to be rubbish; I was a mystic, and that settled the matter” (17). Jung’s interest in Eastern and occult systems of thought further cemented his reputation as being more mystic than scientific.

Jung’s collective unconscious and the notion of synchronicity have been criticized for being immune to empirical and scientific verification. This is especially the case with the collective unconscious since no one will ever be conscious of it which raises questions of how to go about scientifically testing it.

This presents a challenge to Jung’s theory of religion. The study of religions is a scientific discipline and scholars want to test hypotheses and ideas to determine whether or not they stand up to scrutiny. The study of religions involves negotiation, discussion, and debate between scholars. This involves identifying the limitations and challenges to a theory as well as the theory’s benefit to the discipline and existing knowledge. But if there is no means by which to test a theory, then how could this contribute to the study of religions? One might argue that Jung’s theories are more philosophical and metaphysical than scientific.

References and Recommended Readings

1. Jung, Carl G. 2014. Two Essays on Analytical Psychology. Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge. p. 66.

2. Jung, Carl G. 1969. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. p. 43. 

3. Jung, Carl G. 1969. Ibid. p. 3-4. 

4. Boeree, C. George. 2006. Personality Theories: Carl Jung. Available.

5. Jung, Carl G. 1969. p. 43. 

6. Jung, Carl G. 1960. Psychology and Religion. London: Yale University Press. p. 5.

7. Jung, Carl G. 1973. Collected Works of C.G. Jung: The First Complete English Edition of the Works of C.G. Jung. Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge. p. 5218.

8. Hanna, Charles B. 1967. The Face of the Deep. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press. p. 21. 

9. Hanna, Charles B. Ibid. p. 22-23. 

10. Jung, Carl G. 2010. Answer to Job: (From Vol. 11 of the Collected Works of C. G. Jung). New Jersey: Princeton University Press. p. 106. 

11. Jung, Carl G. 2021. The Basic Writings of C.G. Jung: Revised Edition. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. p. 462

12. Jung, Carl G. 1997. Jung on Synchronicity and the Paranormal. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. p. 93. 

13. Hocoy, Dan. 2012. “Sixty Years Later: The Enduring Allure of Synchronicity.” Journal of Humanistic Psychology 52(4):467-478. p. 468.

14. Beitman, Bernard D. 2017. Energizing Jung’s Ideas About Synchronicity. Available.

15. Hocoy, Dan. 2012. Ibid. p. 470.

16. Hanegraaff, Wouter J. 1998. New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought. New York: SUNY Press. p.513

17. Papadopoulos, Renos K. 1992. Carl Gustav Jung: Critical Assessments, Volume 2. Psychology Press. p. 300.

Carlsson, Allan. 1970. “Jung on Meaning and Symbols in Religion.” The Journal of General Education 22(1):29-40.

Lindenfeld, David. 2009. “Jungian archetypes and the discourse of history.” The Journal of Theory and Practice 13(2):217-234 

One comment

  1. This goes to show why religion is unpopular. People just don’t want to believe in something unless they see it with their own eyes. Electricity cannot be seen but people still believe. Why is it so hard to believe?

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