Therapy as a substitute for religion

THE TRIUMPH OF THE THERAPEUTIC: Uses of Faith After Freud by Philip Rieff (1966)

The world’s great civilizations, and all cultures that I know anything about, have been based on religions or philosophies that taught people to regard themselves as part of something greater than themselves.

The greater thing can be conceived as a supernatural order, as natural law or as a web of existence of which we are all a part.  Or it can be service to God or some transcendent force.  Or it can be a continuation of ancient ways of the ancestors.

The atheist sociologist Philip Rieff, like many before him, noticed how such ideas were fading in rich Western countries.  In these countries, people were, and are, increasingly focused on individual self-fulfillment.  For many, religion was and is either ignored or regarded as a stepping-stone to self-fulfillment.

Psychotherapy’s purpose is to make self-fulfillment possible.  In this book, Rieff looked at the potential for psychotherapy to become a substitute for religion, by examining the thought of Sigmund Freud and three of his critics, Carl Jung, Wilhelm Reich and D.H. Lawrence.

I have some basic knowledge about these four thinkers, but I am not a deep student of their thought.  What follows is my understanding of Rieff’s account.

Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, was an atheist who was committed to scientific rationality.  He discovered that people were much more subject to irrational subconscious forces than they had thought.  

He classified the human mind into the “ego,” the conscious rational mind, and the subconscious “id” and “superego.”  The id consists of all the feelings and desires the ego is unwilling to admit, and the “super-ego,” consists of all the rules and taboos imposed by parents that are subconsciously taken for granted.

Freud believe that, in order to live in society, especially modern industrial society, it is impossible to act out all your emotions and fulfill your desires.  Some control is necessary.  Complete happiness is impossible.

But people make themselves more miserable than necessary because they are unconscious of both their desires and the internal taboos that prevent them from attaining their desires.  Freud thought unconscious sexual taboos and desires were especially harmful.

He was not a libertine.  His goal was to make his patients more aware of their unconscious feelings and desires so that they would not be controlled by them.

Freud believed in moral neutrality.  If a patient behaved in a warm and compassionate way because of unconscious guilt feelings, and, freed of guilt feelings, became selfish and ruthless, that was no concern of the therapist.

Although Freud despised the USA and U.S. American culture, his ideas fit well with a certain kind of American individualism.

Carl Jung rejected Freud’s atheism.  People need transcendent meaning, he believed, and meaning is to be found in symbols found in world religions and cultures, which correspond to archetypes found in the unconscious mind.  

The aim of the therapist is to bring these symbols to consciousness and help the patient develop their own transcendent meaning.

The problem with this, Rieff pointed out, is that empowering each person to forge their own personal religion is to rob religion of its authority.

He said Jung was a more dangerous enemy of religion than Freud.  While Freud disbelieved in religion, Jung redefined it in a way that weakened its authority.  Jung’s religion was whatever served the individual patient’s needs.

Wilhelm Reich, like Freud, disbelieved in established religions and, like Jung, disbelieved in value-neutral scientific rationality.

His goal was to free humanity from the twin tyrannies of capitalism and the patriarchal family.  Then basic human instincts could have free play, and people would be happy, loving and sexually uninhibited.

Toward the end of this life, Reich became more and more like a cult leader, obsessed with his own greatness and able to perceive things, such as the all-pervasive vital orgone energy, which others were unable to see.

Freud, Jung and Reich were therapists.  D.H. Lawrence was a literary intellectual, a social type that, according to Rieff, was coming to assume the moral authority formerly assigned to the clergy.

Lawrence, too, believed in giving the instincts, including sexual passion, free play,  But he did not value compassion and communal feeling.  He thought liberated people would be more assertive, more egotistical, more willing to follow their passions and less willing to conform to the majority.

The book is difficult and abstract.  Not everybody would find it meaningful and I don’t necessarily recommend it.  But I think Rieff was onto something.

What all four thinkers had in common was their awareness that the religious and cultural legacy of the West is losing its hold and something new is needed.

Although Rieff criticized all four thinkers (Freud less than the others), he saw them as the advance guard of an irreversible cultural revolution—one based on affirming individual self-fulfillment rather than striving toward a common societal goal

Such a cultural revolution is indeed taking place.  Our US American revolution in manners and morals goes beyond anything Freud, Jung, Reich and Lawrence ever thought of.   I couldn’t tell, based on this book, whether Rieff regarded this as good, bad or indifferent.

I see no signs of the current cultural revolution stabilizing, and I don’t think it can continue indefinitely.  As Rieff pointed out, it depends on a hight enough level of affluence for society to function without demanding self-sacrifice for the common good.  Barring the unexpected, our present level of affluence is unsustainable.

If something cannot go on forever, someday it will stop.  (Stein’s Law)  

What comes next?  A backlash to authoritarian religion and/or nationalism?  The cultural collapse of rich secular societies and their replacement by more cohesive societies? A shift to a humanistic ideal of working together for the common good?  Or something entirely new, something we can’t yet foresee?


The following linked articles comment on Philip Rieff’s later works, which I haven’t read.

Philip Rieff, Sociologist and Author on Freud, Dead at 83 by Robert D. McFadden for The New York Times. (2006)

Pieties of Silence by Jeremy Beer for The American Conservative (2006)

In his posthumous books Philip Rieff revisits faith and our inner and outer lives by Gerald Howard for BookForum (2007}

The West Is a Third World Country: the Relevance of Philip Rieff by Carl Trueman for The Public Discourse (2019)

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4 Responses to “Therapy as a substitute for religion”

  1. williambearcat Says:

    I keep thinking that I am overreacting to the present political, social and religious scenes as a result of my ego or self-centeredness. Since what I believe seems so true for me it must be true for all others. Those who disagree are obviously gaslighting me or are deeply disturbed individuals. Trying to ignore or refuse to be drawn in to analyses until I read and listen to main stream media. Which I begin to think sure ain’t doing their job as well as I could. I guess I’m a fatalist hoping to be wrong.


  2. Bill Harvey Says:


    Thanks MUCH- again.

    I realize that I’m in WAY over my head on this topic; I just don’t have the basis for much of an opinion, even if your version of Rieff rings true to me in a number of ways.

    At the same time it tickles my imagination. Time and again thoughts creep up on me about some sort of “religious” basis for political morality. Is there not something transcendent/greater than “the greater good” that needs to guide our political thinking? Or, if not “our” political morality (mine and others might be excluded), then do some people need some such guiding light?- or do they THINK they need it? Is there not a need from our side to counter, ON A SORT OF TRANSCENDENT LEVEL, the cohering organizing principles of a “Great Again America” or “A Christian America” or “A White Christian America.”

    What’s our counter? My own “Workers of the World,” tho shared with hundreds of millions of people around the world, has too little resonance here in America where it is most needed. I guess this is why they call it a struggle!

    And a glaring contradiction I can’t help but note: the extent to which a deadly American (therapeutic?) individualism has seeped into Republican ideology- guns, vaccines, what all- ostensibly rooted in an overarching communitarian ideology.

    On the therapeutic: My old friend Bill O’Connor, long since passed away, often said, “So many of these people put time into the healing of the self. Don’t they get it, Bill? The self is never going to get healed?”

    A long way from Rieff, but I can’t help but see some kinship.

    And I noticed you’ve reached 1500 subscribers. Congratulations! Keep it coming!



    • philebersole Says:

      Well, Bill, I’m over my head, too.

      I think many people, once their survival needs are met, want something that gives their life a larger meaning. For some, working to create a better world is that meaning. For some, family, community and tradition are sufficient to provide meaning.

      Wiping family, community and tradition off the blackboard in the name of liberation is a terrible idea, especially when you leave all the structures of power in place.

      I don’t want to go back to the days when black people were kept figuratively in the back of the bus, women were kept in the kitchen, gays and lesbians were kept in the closet and transgender wasn’t even a word.

      But I don’t think our present anything goes liquid modernity ideology is a good answer. And, yes, the right-wing Republican (selective) individualism is a variant of this.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. philebersole Says:

    The ideas of Sigmund Freud, of Carl Jung and of Wilhelm Reich and D.H. Lawrence, as presented by Philip Rieff, are relevant to certain aspects of the world today.      

    Freud’s ideas can be connected to utilitarian individualism so prevalent in today’s world.  

    Carl Jung’s ideas can be connected to the vague, eclectic “spiritual but not religious” religion that’s also prevalent.  

    Wilhelm Reich’s and D.H. Lawrence’s ideas can be connected to the way so many think uninhibited sex is the key to happiness.

    Overall, they present inadequate answers to a real problem, which is how to find individual meaning and social cohesion in a historically Christian world when faith is declining and marginalized.  

    What we call “woke-ness” is an inadequate answer.  Right-wing theocratic Christianity, which defines Christianity in terms of. politics, is an inadequate answer. Psychotherapy and therapeutic Christianity are inadequate answers.  I don’t have a good answer myself.  Perhaps there is none.

    As someone said, “If a problem cannot be solved, it may not be a problem, but a fact.”


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